West Bengal has failed to eradicate polio. This is a dangerous failure, and has quite rightly started to worry neighbouring states and countries. Orissa and Bangladesh — neither of them an exemplar in faultless governance — have not registered any case of polio in the last one and one-and-a-half year respectively. Immunization programmes have been organized regularly, but for various reasons, they have not been able to achieve full eradication. The count had come down to one new case reported, but has climbed up again to more than ten. It is important for the state administration not to get complacent about the results of its campaigns, and keep up the drive for long enough, in order to observe over a sufficient period of time if eradication has been actually achieved. The indications are now far from hopeful.
Most polio cases in West Bengal are concentrated in Murshidabad district, and within this district, the Jangipur sub-division seems to be the worst affected. The failure of the immunization programme is largely because of the persistence of prejudice in the local communities against the vaccine. Most people in these areas believe that the vaccine would be physically harmful for the infant, and have therefore stayed away from the programme. Some unfortunate coincidences, in which children already suffering from acute diarrhoea have died after being vaccinated, have confirmed these prejudices. But rather than seeing this as the cause of the failure, such ignorance only underlines the inability of the state administration to devise a means of communication which would effectively educate the backward communities in these districts. A far more concerted effort has to be made, and then kept up rigorously. District level administrative bodies and non-governmental organizations must work systematically in conjunction with religious and community leaders and teachers in these districts to raise the level of public awareness regarding the polio vaccine. This calls for not only properly trained medical personnel, but also good management and sustained communication strategies. The state government has repeatedly boasted of the effectiveness of its panchayati system. But the persistence of polio is a definite indication of the extent to which these administrative networks have to be extended and made more efficient. At every level therefore complacence and partisanship have to give way to vigilance and political will. West Bengal’s development scenario must be deemed bleak if polio continues to plague its backward districts.