With one arm, the woman clutches a sleeping baby to her chest. With the other, she’s waving away a polio vaccination worker who has come to her home in Agwanpur, India.
“We have told you earlier, and we will tell you again: we don’t want the vaccine,” she says. Her whole body is tense, shaking with each emphatic flick of the arm. “Consider this your home,” she says. “Come whenever you want. But never to discuss this vaccine.”
The scene, from a 2009 UNICEF video, illustrates one of the last remaining obstacles in the world’s quest to wipe out polio, a highly contagious virus known for paralyzing its victims. Aggressive global vaccination campaigns have wrangled the number of polio cases down from 350,000 in 1988 to less than 400 in 2013, according to the World Health Organization. Still, polio remains endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, where social resistance — often punctuated by violence — and other challenges, such as poor record keeping and mobile populations, have prevented eradication.
India, long considered one of the most difficult places to unroot the disease, managed to innovate its way around such roadblocks by, among other things, switching vaccine formulas and devising a high-tech tracking system. Between 2009 and 2011, the country cut the number of infections from 741 — the largest caseload in the world — to zero. Now India is celebrating three years polio free and its path to success has become a model for global efforts to stamp out the virus for good. It’s early still, but results of the scale up seem promising; in January, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan reported 40 percent fewer cases than the same time last year.