Telangana polio scare indicates flaws in immunization program

This week Telangana declared a global health emergency after an active strain of a polio virus, but one derived from a vaccine, was detected in water collected from a drain in Hyderabad. Two lakh vaccines from Geneva were flown in to vaccinate children in Hyderabad as a preventive measure.

The scare is unlikely to make a dent on India’s claim to be polio-free since 2011 as this is not a direct case of polio.The strain found is from the oral polio vaccine, which contains a small amount of the weakened virus that stays in the child’s intestine and helps develop immunity. India can justifiably feel proud of its campaign to end polio, which was a long and tough battle to win.

However, there are concerns about the larger immunization program, as a recent study by the University of Michigan has found. The study says that two thirds of children under five years of age in India had not been vaccinated at all, or had not received the dose prescribed on time.

Every year, in India, over 1.5 million children die due to diseases that can be prevented by vaccines. While the Universal Immunization Program has helped reduce the numbers substantially from the figure of 120 in the nineties, the current figure of 48 is still high. And one possible explanation could be that vaccines are not being given on time.

Experts say that typically a child’s natural immunity after birth starts falling by the time it is  nine months old and it is critical to administer crucial vaccines like measles and rota virus in this period. Delaying this even by a few weeks, not only makes the child vulnerable to the disease, but also other infants in his or her proximity.

Ignorance among new mothers and poverty are major factors for the delay as is the lack of immunization records. Issues that initiatives like mMitra and Immunize India are attempting to address by taking rising on the mobile technology spread across India. Initial results from these initiatives show a lot of promise and given the many challenges of providing healthcare to a country as vast as India, technology innovations like these show the way forward.

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