- Associated Press - Sunday, February 20, 2011

TILKESHWAR, INDIA (AP) - Tilkeshwar is one of India’s forgotten villages.

It’s 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the nearest paved road, untouched by electricity, running water, sanitation and even the barest of health care. Life is so bleak that nearly all adult men leave to search for menial work for their families’ survival.

Here, deep in the floodplains of the Kosi River, the polio virus has stubbornly hidden. And it is here where the long-stalled global fight to eradicate the crippling disease might be on the verge of a badly needed victory.

The sudden optimism has been stoked by a startlingly effective campaign by the government and aid groups to finally drive polio out of India. The scale of the effort is staggering. In just five days last month, 2 1/2 million workers visited 68 million homes to inoculate 172 million children.

Similar campaigns have fallen short in the past, but two factors this time are different: Health workers are armed with a new, more effective vaccine, and nearly airtight monitoring means virtually no child is missed, not even in the most remote of villages.

For India, teetering between the worlds of poverty and new wealth, defeating a disease long forgotten in richer countries would be a crucial step in its transformation into a global power.

“It’s a stigma for India,” said Dr. Lakhindra Prasad, chief medical officer of India’s Darbhanga district, which covers Tilkeshwar.

For the rest of the world, success in India would would create a precedent for bringing health services to even the poorest and most remote people.

“(It shows) what we think is impossible is actually possible in public health,” said Bruce Aylward, the head of the World Health Organization’s global polio campaign.

Across India, one of four nations where polio remains endemic, only 42 cases were recorded in 2010, a drop of 94 percent from the year before. It is the lowest number ever recorded here.

In the Kosi floodplains of central Bihar, there hasn’t been a case since last January. In Uttar Pradesh, the other region in India where polio remains endemic, there hasn’t been a case since April.

“We think the end of polio is near, we definitely feel it,” said Dilip Kumar Mukhiya, a member of the Tilkeshwar village council.

India’s near success, and a similar plunge in cases in Nigeria, has brought a surge of energy to the long-stalled global campaign against a disease that has paralyzed millions.

Last month, philanthropist Bill Gates pledged $102 million to eradication, which he called his top priority; Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pledged another $50 million to vaccinating children in Afghanistan and Pakistan against polio and other diseases; Rotary International, which has already given more than $1 billion to eradication, unveiled a fundraising campaign entitled “This Close.”

“This is the best situation I’ve ever seen,” said Tim Peterson, a polio expert with the Gates Foundation. “I certainly think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Story Continues →