The World Health Organization has said India has 'tremendous capacity' to win the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic given its experience in fighting two major epidemics in the past -- smallpox and polio.
'India is a very populous country and the future of this virus will be considered in a very highly and densely populated country,' the WHO executive director, Dr. Michael J Ryan, said. 'India led the world in eradicating two pandemics, smallpox and polio -- so it has tremendous capacity.'
Dr. Ryan added that there were no 'easy answers' in combating the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 17,000 people worldwide, and that’s why it was 'exceptionally important' that countries like India 'show the way to the world' as they had done this before.
The eradication of smallpox and polio has indeed been a success story. Let’s look at how India’s governments and civil society including women groups came together to achieve these milestones, despite having limited resources at their disposal.
Smallpox had plagued humanity for three millennia before it was wiped out in the 1970s. In the 20th century alone, it killed an estimated 300 million people. The global battle against smallpox could not have been won had India not eradicated it from its soil.
A highly contagious disease caused by the Variola major virus, smallpox spread through people-to-people contact. Some mistakenly link it to chickenpox, but they are very different diseases, smallpox being much more dangerous. The initial symptoms were fatigue and high fever, but later it would lead to rash on the arms, legs and face.
With a high fatality rate of 30 per cent, it ravaged the world for thousands of years, causing untold misery and widespread death, and ending empires. Though an early smallpox vaccine was developed in the 19th century, making it available to a vast population like India’s was a mammoth task even in the 20th century.
India accounted for approximately 60 percent of the total smallpox cases in the world. Initial efforts by the government did not go too far and were met with logistical and social challenges in a largely illiterate country. But then from the early 1970s, India tied up with the WHO, and a massive campaign involving tens of thousands of health workers was launched.
The numbers are astonishing. Every month for six days, health workers visited each and every household in the country – that is 100 million households were covered in 575,721 villages and 2,641 cities, according to WHO data. The health-workers were trained by WHO teams, and had to even clear a written exam.
Emphasis was laid on active searches as well as detection and containment of any new outbreak. A handsome sum of Rs 100 (a big amount in those days) was promised as an award to anyone who reported any case. Massive publicity of the anti-smallpox campaign was carried out in print, radio, television and posters.
The efforts bore fruit. In May 1975, the last case of smallpox was detected in India. Together with international collaboration, the country had defeated this ancient scourge.
Polio is a disabling and potentially fatal disease caused by the poliovirus, which spreads from person to person. The virus can infect the spinal cord, leading to paralysis. Unsanitary conditions lead to the spreading of the virus.
In India, the number of reported polio cases was as high as 40,000 in the early 1980s. Though it saw a gradual decline, the disease stubbornly persisted, with a few cases recorded every year through the beginning of the new century.
India launched a multi-pronged strategy to fight polio, and a strong commitment was shown by the government, NGOs, Rotary Clubs, community health-workers and mobilisers, with support from international organisations such as the WHO and Unicef.
The bivalent oral vaccine for polio which was introduced in 2010 helped extend the fight against the disease to type 3 transmission, which the earlier vaccine was not able to contain.
But the main battle was led by workers on the ground as they covered a country of more than a billion people. There was resistance from many rural communities when the Social Mobilisation Network for polio was set up in 2001, and authorities had to combat rumours linking the vaccine to impotency!
Finally, a dual-approach gave results. Firstly, the polio vaccines and drops were introduced as one of a large bucket of good hygiene practices such as hand-washing, santisation, breast-feeding and various kinds of immunisation.
Secondly, specific communities were targeted by taking into confidence religious leaders, and polio hotspots with a large number of migrants were made the focus of attention.
Some 2.3-million polio volunteers and about 150,000 supervisors worked relentlessly to reach every child in the country for years.
India was officially declared polio-free on March 27, 2014. It’s a victory India can be proud of, and gives us hope as the country battles the coronavirus epidemic.