The reintroduction of the polio virus type-2 strain into the population, albeit in an inactivated form, is a serious public health concern and cannot be brushed aside on the pretext that it won’t lead to an outbreak. What was annihilated has been resurrected. At this moment, no one can say for certain the path it would take. India’s polio-free status is at stake and questions abound.
It is not one or two but possibly up to 1.5 lakh vials of polio vaccine containing the type-2 strain that have been distributed under the immunisation programme in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana. The type-2 strain had been declared eradicated from the world in 2016 and has since been omitted from the vaccination schedule in India.
It is inexplicable that a pharma company continued to manufacture the banned vaccine and a huge consignment of the very vaccine was shipped from the factory to several states without coming to notice even once. The response of the Union health ministry to this serious lapse has been facile, limited to a customary probe and the arrest of the MD of the company. No effort is seen directed at pinpointing the holes in the system and fixing accountability right from Centre to state agencies or individuals.
It took decades of resolute efforts for India to be declared polio-free in 2014. The WHO has stated the contaminated vaccines pose minimal risk to children but has not completely discounted the possibility. The type-2 virus is back in circulation as evidenced in the stool samples of some children who were administered the vaccine.
One case of vaccine derived polio virus (VDPV) has the potential to bring India back to square one. The situation demands intensive monitoring and surveillance in the affected states. The situation has also triggered panic in the population and threatens to derail the immunisation programme across states. The government must act proactively to dispel fears and ensure polio vaccination continues smoothly.