It has begun to look as if West Bengal is past rebuke when it comes to public health. When the World Health Organization named the state recently as among the top in the global polio menace list — second only to Uttar Pradesh and worse than Bihar — the health department showed remarkable humility in taking on this dubious distinction. It was now the Union health minister’s turn to publicly and severely admonish the state government for continuing to make a mess of its polio eradication programme. The number of polio cases in the state has risen to 23 in the last four months, and still about 10 per cent of the children under five have not been vaccinated in the latest campaign. Ms Sushma Swaraj has therefore severely pulled up the state health minister, chief secretary and health secretary for being primarily responsible for this alarming regression since 2001. The state minister and his men have responded predictably by admitting their failure to reach every child under five with the vaccine. As the director general of the WHO said in April while launching the Indian campaign from Uttar Pradesh, “Today there is simply no moral or economic justification for any child anywhere in the world to be crippled by polio.” The amply funded Global Polio Eradication Programme — spearheaded by the WHO, Rotary International, UNICEF and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has 15 years of experience in polio eradication.
The polio virus is now circulating in only seven countries around the world, reduced from over 125 when the GPEI was launched in 1988. India now heads this list of seven as the highest-risk country, beating Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia. West Bengal’s contribution to keeping India at the head of this club is multifarious. The sociological excuses do not work any more. The backwardness of a minority community is not the only reason for the transmission of the virus. Magrahat, barely 20 kilometres from Calcutta, has the nation’s highest density of cases. It has only one block primary health centre, serving a population of more than two lakh. The nearest hospital is 25 km away, and there is no health sub-centre. Last weekend, during the polio programme, fluctuations in power supply in the area forced the personnel in charge to devise ingenious means of keeping the vaccine at the right temperature, although there are doubts as to whether some of the vaccines would work properly because of the dysfunctional freezers. It would require more than ministerial scolding for the state to set up the proper infrastructure for dealing with the polio crisis.