WHO To Launch Massive Polio Eradication Plan In India
LEORA, India (CNN) -- India is fighting an ancient war here in this desert village, not against an armed enemy, but against the scourge of polio.
Cases of polio are reported from almost every district in the country, and an estimated 10 million children have not been immunized, according to the World Health Organization, which has set a goal of eradicating polio in India by 2000.
Although the number of new polio cases reported in India has dropped from 4,791 in 1994 to 2,489 in 1997, WHO says a great deal of work remains before the disease can be eliminated.
The health agency is trying to get parents to have their children immunized, and it is also trying to change the image of those who suffer from polio, so that they can be accepted into the mainstream, and lead productive lives.
Stopping a deadly virus
The Indian government undertook an assault on polio two years ago. On one day last December, 125 million children were given oral vaccines across the country, followed by booster vaccines in January and March.
Using neighborhood awareness campaigns, health workers set out to immunize virtually every child in India, but millions remain unprotected.
The highly infectious polio virus spreads to the spinal cord and brain, causing paralysis and sometimes death. Poor sanitation -- a hallmark of India's filthy cities and villages -- contributes to the virus' spread.
Shunned by children
Young victims of the war on polio still fight difficult daily battles. In the dusty village of Leora in India's western desert, children shriek in joy while playing cricket with a broken bat and a tennis ball.
But Asruddin, who is 10, is shunned by children his age because of his useless, thin legs. Getting out of the unpaved courtyard of his house onto the narrow lanes, Asruddin crawls on all fours or walks on his hands, with his long thin legs crossed behind his back. His palms are calloused and rough like the soles of other children's feet.
Asruddin's parents did not take him for the doses of anti-polio vaccine that most health care centers in India provide. "When I go out, all the people call me a monkey," said Asruddin, wearing an old shirt and trousers torn at the knees from dragging on the ground.
A change for the better
But with help from local charitable groups, Asruddin is fighting the stigma. Early this year, volunteers gave him lessons for three months to prepare him for mainstream education in the classroom. Barely one person in five in his village can read and write.
He now goes to school each day, helps his elder brother sew clothes at his tailor shop, and, in the evening, struggles with his third grade mathematics books in the dim yellow light of a rusted iron lantern.
Asruddin's success in adjusting to his disease is being held out as an important example in the crusade against polio. In India's cities, the image of a polio victim is often of an ill-clothed, handicapped child on a street corner, begging from cars at traffic lights.
Sometimes Asruddin heads out on the village lanes in an improvised wheelchair given by a charity. "I want to become a teacher when I grow up," he said, drying in the sun after his bath, "and help other children like me."