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Asia

Despite eradication polio stigma remains

The eradication of polio in India is one of the country's most successful medical feats. But millions, for whom vaccination came too late, continue to struggle.

Mohammed Hashmi is anxious as he paces with his crutch in the polio ward of New Delhi's St. Stephen's Hospital. After having lived with a twisted limb all his life, Hashmi will undergo a surgery to fit his legs with calipers. The 20-year-old hopes he will finally be able to walk after.

"I don't want to face the stigma of being disabled. I still have a lot to accomplish. I want to go back to my village and study and be someone," Hashmi told DW.

'Polio-free' for three years

Like Hashmi, Babu, who is in his late teens, also contracted polio in his infancy. He has undergone at least three operations to straighten each hip and knee. It will only be a matter of days before Babu will also be equipped with a similar pair of calipers.

"I am really excited. I heard that India celebrated three years of not having any new cases of polio. That is good. If only I had been immunized earlier I would have been a healthy boy. But this is God's will," Babu said wistfully.

Babu, a youth has been suffering from polio since he was 2 years. After three months in hospital and an equal number of surgeries, he will go back home and hope to walk with calipers. (Photo: DW Murali Krishnan)

Babu: 'If only I had been immunized earlier, I would have been a healthy boy'

There are many other patients in the polio ward of the hospital, the only place in India with a dedicated ward for free corrective surgeries for people with deformities associated with the disease.

Dr. Mathew Varghese, head of orthopedics treats approximately 200 polio patients a year. Reconstructive surgery has been carried out at the hospital since the late 1980s and more than 7,000 children have been treated. In addition to surgery, the hospital makes calipers and braces in-house, to keep costs low.

"My dream is to see this ward empty one day. The aim of these polio-corrective surgeries is to make people as independent as possible. We want to make these people stand on their feet," Varghese told DW. Most of the patients are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These northern states have recorded the country's worst affected polio cases. Polio usually infects people during their childhood. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis and deformities.

A fresh lease of life

Though the eradication of polio in India has involved a mammoth mobilization of field workers to vaccinate young children, there are still many afflicted with the disease. Paralyzed in their lower limbs or otherwise shoulders deformed, they face social stigma.

"The children in my neighborhood used to make fun of me and I used to cry every night. I could not walk and was unaware that surgery or other assistance was available until a couple of years ago," 17-year-old Uma, told DW.

A polio patient waiting for surgery at a hospital in New Delhi (Photo DW/Murali Kirshnan)

There are an estimated 4 million people affected by polio in India, heath experts say

She had undergone a procedure called osteotomy, which involved changing the alignment of the deformed bones in the knees. Nowadays, Uma has become an inspiration for many of her friends in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, who have also sought similar medical assistance.

"Five years ago, India was home to nearly half of the world's new polio cases. It is a great achievement that we have had no cases in the last three years. But I hope these patients also have a new lease of life," says Dr. Varghese.

There are no accurate figures as to the total number of polio affected people in India, but health experts put the number at over 4 million.

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