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Annan prods Delhi on polio threat

Sept. 11: Weeks after a global study labelled India the world’s lone polio exporter, United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan has written to the Prime Minister expressing concern.

The letter seeks an urgent meeting in Geneva between “key” Indian officials and the World Health Organisation, which has blamed a lackadaisical Uttar Pradesh government for matters getting out of hand.

The Telegraph had described on August 30 how a polio outbreak in western Uttar Pradesh had become a global threat, with the virus strain detected in neighbouring countries as well as in the African nations of Angola, Namibia and Congo.

The number of affected Indian children has since then risen from 244 to 283 (as of September 9), of whom 255 — that is 90 per cent — are in Uttar Pradesh. At the end of 2005, the country had only 66 polio patients.

“The outbreak threatens global eradication efforts since polio viruses of Indian origin have been identified in countries newly infected in 2006, including neighbouring Bangladesh, as well as Namibia and the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Annan wrote.

He suggested that “key officials from the Centre and state levels of (the) Indian government”, including representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, make it to Geneva to meet WHO acting director-general Anders Nordstrom.

Nordstrom had earlier written to Union health minister A. Ramadoss seeking “an early September meeting”, but there was no confirmation from the Indian side.

“A substantial number of children are not being reached with the oral polio vaccine in the polio immunisation campaigns (in Uttar Pradesh). I am informed that unfilled medical officer positions in the high-risk blocks have also contributed to the sub-optimal polio immunisation programmes,” Nordstrom said.

State health officials admit that about 30 per cent of the key posts are vacant.

Dr Sunil Bahl, deputy project manager of WHO’s National Polio Surveillance Project in India, agrees with Nordstrom. “A few relatively poor (pulse polio) rounds during end-2005 and early 2006 was the main problem,” he said from Moradabad. But he added that yesterday’s pulse polio round, carried out in most areas in the country, was “encouraging”.

Bahl suggested that the way parents were being mobilised for the pulse polio programme in the state wasn’t good enough, being confined mostly to the field level. “The best mobilisation model is perhaps in Bengal,” he said.

“There’s a lot of involvement on the part of the government, NGOs and even political parties, with international agencies like Unicef and WHO providing the support.”

The Telegraph report about the polio outbreak

In Bengal, polio cases have nosedived since “detailed mobilisation efforts integrating all stakeholders” were taken up in 2003.

In 2002, the state had 49 cases, mostly in Murshidabad. The number fell to 28 in 2003 (most cases in South 24-Parganas), two in 2004 and zero in 2005 before one patient was discovered this year near the Jharkhand border.

“The polio campaign in Bengal has been extremely participatory. It has also successfully used the latest technology, such as the Geographical Information System, to find out the gap areas,” said Tapas Ghatak, who was deputed to Unicef to work on its polio programme.

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