A petition has been filed with the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court seeking to ensure that the Pulse Polio vaccination drive is conducted this year. In January, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had issued a notice to states to postpone the drive that was to be held on February 3. Following this, Madurai-based Janci Rani has filed the public interest litigation to ensure that the campaign takes place this year.
In January this year, states were issued notices from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare stating that the Pulse Polio immunisation campaign was postponed. Though no official reason was given for the postponement, speculations were rife that the shutdown of Biomed, a pharmaceutical company that was authorised by the government to produce the vaccines, had led to a shortage of the vaccines.
On October 1 last year, news broke that a batch of oral polio vaccines produced by the Ghaziabad-based pharmaceutical company were contaminated. To make matters worse, some of the polio drops had allegedly been administered to children in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Telangana. Following this, Biomed was ordered to be shut down by the government.
A brief history of India’s polio eradication campaign
In 1978, India began its first major campaign against the polio virus, with the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI). It targeted the aggressive onset of poliomyelitis in children. EPI was altered over time. In the 1980s the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) was launched, and is currently utilised to chart when and what vaccines children must receive.
The Pulse Polio campaign was introduced by the government around 1995 as part of an initiative to reach a state of complete polio eradication. Following this, the last cases of polio were reported in 2011 in the country. After a three-year observation period, the World Health Organisation (WHO) granted India its ‘polio-free’ status. The vaccines, however, continue to be administered as a precautionary measure.
The contamination scare
Given that the virus was “eradicated” in 2011, how did a contamination scare occur? To understand this, it is important to know the three serotypes (or forms) of the polio virus that exist: PV1, PV2 and PV3. The form of the virus that was most virulent and widespread was PV2, which has since been eradicated.
The vaccines are produced using a killed or weakened form of the virus. After the WHO declared India polio-free, it suggested that all stock of PV2 being used to make the vaccines be destroyed and a bivalent vaccine (one that covers two strains of the virus) that protects against PV1 and PV3 be introduced instead. However, it appears that Biomed did not pay heed to the WHO’s direction, resulting in the contamination.