NEW DELHI (AP) - India has not had a case of polio in nine months, raising hopes the country is on the verge of defeating the disease, health officials said Monday.
Ridding itself of polio would be a major symbolic milestone for a nation desperate to move past its image as a Third World country and take its place as a major global player.
India remains one of only four countries in the world where polio is still endemic, and the nine months that it has been without a case is the longest since eradication efforts were launched nearly two decades ago.
“We are close to our goal, but are not taking any chances,” said Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Polio usually infects children under age 5 through contaminated drinking water. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.
A country is declared polio free when no cases of the disease are reported for three years, according to the World Health Organization.
“The present situation is indeed very promising but also extremely challenging,” Menabde said in remarks Monday marking World Polio Day.
India’s success has followed “persistent efforts over the last few years in the highest-risk areas and in reaching the most vulnerable populations, such as newborns, migrants and mobile populations,” Azad said.
The government is aware, however, that a slip could lead to a resurgence of the disease.
Azad said an immunization campaign continues in all high-risk areas and any new case would be declared a public health emergency.
Health officials also remain concerned about the possibility of the virus entering the country from neighboring Pakistan, where a spate of cases have been reported.
Indian health authorities have set up polio immunization booths at the two border crossings with Pakistan and all children who enter by road and train are being given vaccines.