New Delhi, Jan 20 (IANS) India has stepped up vigilance at its borders to prevent the re-entry of polio from Pakistan as it aims to continue its two-year run free from the paralytic disease.
Though the World Health Organisation (WHO) took India off the list of polio endemic countries in February 2012, it will declare it "polio free" only if no fresh case is reported for the next one year.
But health officials say the risk of polio persists.
India's close proximity to polio endemic Pakistan and Afghanistan, the significant movement of the international population and the fact that India has exported polio to countries near and far such as Nepal, Tajikistan, Angola and Bangladesh puts this country at the risk of importing the polio virus.
To maintain the progress achieved, health ministry officials said they have started round-the-clock polio immunisation at the international borders at five check posts along the India-Pakistan border (Baramullah and Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir, Wagah and Attari in Punjab and Munabo in Barmer, Rajasthan). Pakistan reported 198 polio cases in 2011 and 58 in 2012.
Apart from this, polio immunisation has also been started at 81 locations along the porous India-Nepal border.
In 2010, polio travelled from India to Tajikistan. Now, the authorities feel it can return to India via the same route.
"There is a risk of the polio virus coming back along the same route that India exported it to other countries in the past. Globally since 2000, as many as 44 countries that had been polio free have suffered from one or more importations of wild polio virus," a senior health ministry official told IANS.
The government has also formed state-level teams to respond to any case of polio importation, anywhere in the country, as a public health emergency.
As part of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Plans at the national and state levels, emergency preparedness groups and rapid response teams have been formed to roll out an adequate response in the shortest possible time in the event of an importation, the official added.
The last polio case was detected in India in 2011.
"India has achieved much in the last few years in its fight against polio, but vigilance needs to be maintained at all costs," a Unicef official told IANS.
Officials said to mitigate the risk of importation, they also need to build immunity among the high-risk population especially those living in high-risk areas of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.
Health ministry officials said they were making all out efforts to ensure children up to the age of five years remain protected against polio through widespread community acceptance of the polio vaccine and high quality vaccination campaigns.
They said the migrant population is also being tapped for polio immunisation during major festivals and at other major congregations such as the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.
Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad also said the focus of the government continues to be on the most vulnerable migrant and mobile populations, youngest children and under-served populations.
The entire machinery for the polio eradication programme is now geared towards boosting the Routine Immunisation (RI) coverage. India is observing 2012-13 as the year of intensifying routine immunisation.
Under this campaign, considered the fourth pillar of the polio eradication strategy, 2.3 million vaccinators will have immunised nearly 172 million children.
The focus of the campaigns remain the most vulnerable population such as the new born and the underserved, the high-risk areas such as the 107 blocks in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the at-risk migrant, mobile and nomadic populations in the country.
Each campaign reaches out to the people in transit through 450 vaccination teams, which immunise eight million children on the move, nearly 100,000 of them on running trains in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Delhi and Maharashtra.
While a nationwide vaccination drive was held Sunday there will be another on Feb 24 and four sub-national polio campaigns during the rest of the year.
(Sreeparna Chakrabarty can be contacted at email@example.com)