International fame comes to West Bengal most often for highly dubious distinctions. Its latest achievement is to catch up with Uttar Pradesh in the number of polio cases, 22, found this year. In this, as always, the state has humbly accepted the findings of the World Health Organization. This is officially taken to be some sort of a crisis, but then crises are a part of life; they breed strategies and strategies do not always live up to their expected results. (Even Bihar, that unbeatable exemplum of backwardness, has managed to bring down its polio numbers from 121 to 8 within a year’s time.) The polio eradication measures in the state have been plugging along in a similar vein. But the reality is becoming more alarming each day. Recently, there has been one new case found in Calcutta, and this has provoked the usual ineffectual blame-game between the municipal authorities and the health department. The other approach to the crisis is to cite local sociology. For instance, the alarming polio figures in the Murshidabad district are attributed to the backwardness of the minority community in that area, which refuses to immunize its infants for all sorts of benighted misconceptions regarding the vaccine. But then, what about North and South 24 Parganas, where 14 cases have been found' The superstition factor cannot be invoked for these districts whose religious demography is very different.
West Bengal will have to sit up to the inadequacies in its polio eradication efforts. India is one of only seven countries to remain infected by polio, and heads the other six (Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia) with regard to the risk factor. Eighty-three per cent of all new polio cases are now found in India, and genetic sequencing has confirmed that a recent case of polio in Lebanon had been imported from here. The core partners of the global polio eradication initiative, one of whom is the WHO, have therefore made an important tactical shift in its public health initiative, whereby the eradication noose will be tightened much more intensively in the seven high-risk countries. This focused approach will try to stop transmission in reservoir countries and intensify surveillance in non-endemic countries. Polio is incurable; it can only be prevented. But this requires the initiative of not only the government, but also the active and informed cooperation of every citizen of the state.