Home >News >India >COVID-19: Will India’s experience in eradicating small pox and polio help?

NEW DELHI: Considering India’s success in eradicating small pox and polio in the past, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said India has "tremendous capacities" to control the spread of Covid-19.

“India also eliminated polio, another silent killer, and did tremendous job on surveillance, on finding cases and vaccinating and doing all the things that needed to be done. India has tremendous capacities," said Michael J Ryan, executive director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

Ryan said “it is exceptionally important that countries like India lead the way and show the world what can be done and do as they have done before and show that aggressive, sustained public health action from community right through from the Head of State can have a profound effect on the trajectory and the outcome of this pandemic."

Following a targeted intervention, ministry of health and family welfare has focussed on contact tracing of all positive Covid-19 patients, professed social distancing and now implemented a lockdown, thereby decreasing the chances of infection.

“Our efforts have proven successful in the past for small pox and polio. Together we can fight coronavirus, although a vaccine would be needed," said Arun Singhal, Special Secretary, Union Health Ministry.

Public health experts believe that all the three diseases polio, small pox and Covid-19 are different, and the government can certainly use some of its experience in combating the current pandemic.

As scientists have already indicated that it may become an endemic disease in coming three to four years, it is now becoming more and more convincing that Covid-19 may not vanish suddenly and even if we are able to control the current outbreak in coming two-three months, it may again show its deadly face from time to time.

“Creating herd immunity will need at least 50-60% of world population getting infected, so that will also take time. Vaccine is also at best 18-24 month away. Even when vaccine is available reach and administration will have challenges," said Himanshu Sikka, Lead- Health, Nutrition & WASH, IPE Global, an international health research consultancy firm.

“Given this, past surveillance focused experience with elimination of Small Pox and Polio would come handy. IPE Global has worked closely with Unicef and WHO in India on polio elimination and that level of door to door surveillance, combined with isolation of each identified case seems to be the only possible long-term solution," he said.

Public health experts recall that during the outbreak of Polio and small pox, India had developed a vaccine and the challenge was to provide immunity to a large number of populations primarily new born and children below age 10. All the new born were targeted for vaccination and public awareness campaign by celebrities and advertisement also helped the government to reach out to a larger population.

The risk of modalities and infection ratio of coronavirus is much higher as compared to polio and small pox, said Amitabh Parti, director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, adding that since chicken pox is a dermal disease and the symptoms can be easily seen on the patient’s skin, implementing isolation guidelines become easier. “Whereas the symptoms of coronavirus start are very trivial like common cold and dry cough. There are asymptomatic carriers in society so the chances of identification of suspects becomes difficult and range of suspicion is much lower than small pox," said Parti.

Parti said a person can get infected by coronavirus by within a 2-metre proximity or contact with objects infected by a COVID-19 patient.

“Thus, our challenges in Coronavirus are both early identification and strict implementation of social distancing are probably the best ways to protect the population while awaiting the vaccine which has already reached a stage of a human trials," said Parti.

The 1974 smallpox epidemic of India was one of the worst smallpox epidemics of the 20th century. Over 15,000 people contracted smallpox and died from the disease between January and May 1974. Most of the deaths occurred in Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. India reported 61,482 cases of smallpox, over 86% of the world's smallpox cases in 1974.

Officially by 1975, the country eradicated the disease. Similarly, in 2009, India reported 741 polio cases, more than any other country in the world, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. On 27 March 2014, the WHO declared India a polio free country, since no cases of wild polio been reported in for five years.

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