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Lessons from the past to fight polio

State health minister Surjya Kanta Mishra on Monday went into flashback mode in quest of effective measures to eradicate polio from Bengal.

A day after the state was chastised by Union health minister Sushma Swaraj for its “unpardonable negligence and complacency” in handling the polio eradication programme, Mishra asked officials to find out how his predecessor and the former health department mandarins had managed to meet the national targets in polio management.

A post-mortem in administrative and political circles revealed evidence of a well-organised campaign, mounted in the mid-nineties and maintained throughout. This was directly responsible for the Left Front’s success in keeping polio in check till 2001.

“The fact that there was only a solitary case in 2001 cannot be explained away as something unexpected,” said a senior official connected with the polio drive. “Such an achievement was possible because of the exemplary work of the previous team.”

The official’s assertion was in tune with Swaraj’s observation that “Bengal started off very well, as evident from the figures of the past several years, but for some reason it lost its way”.

Partha De, former health minister, and several former health secretaries — S. Subramanium, Leena Chakraborty and N.K. Jhala among them — take much of the credit for the success of the polio programme, which went awry after it went off the radar of the top health officials.

Finance minister Asim Dasgupta, too, played a role in the dilution of the government’s emphasis on polio eradication as his department, failing to comprehend the importance of the programme, had decided to cut costs and released funds for only two rounds of the campaign.

Also, unlike the present campaign managers, De and his officials had made effective use of grassroots leaders in minority-dominated areas to get locals to join the immunisation drive.

In Sunday’s immunisation programme, only 66 per cent of the population was covered, where the target was 80 per cent. “I wouldn’t say it is a debacle, but our plan needed to be implemented much better at the grassroots level,” said director of medical education C.R. Maity.

The quality of work put in by the previous team can be measured from the fact that from 26 cases in 1998, the polio graph slid to 21 in 1999, to eight in 2000, to only one in 2001. However, the trend reversed in 2002, which saw 49 cases being reported. This year, 23 cases have already been jotted. “We should not be surprised if polio is back again to haunt us. Our health managers forgot to carry out the requisite surveillance,” said a senior functionary of the Indian Medical Association.

Among the reasons being cited for the renewed threat posed by polio are: lack of implementation of the microplan at the ground level; non-involvement of the local patrons; untrained health workers; and a lack of awareness campaigns.

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