Polio panic

at a time when the Pulse polio immunisation drive is in full swing, rumours are rife about the presence of polio virus in some goats in Gumbli village in Tamil Nadu's Thiruvellur district. Experts fear this can affect the already floundering national polio eradication programme.

According to news reports, around 200 goats died between January and March 2002 following the outbreak of a disease with symptoms similar to polio. Then eight people suffered paralysis attacks, two of whom died. Though investigations were carried out by the New Delhi based National Institute of Communicable Diseases (nicd), the findings were not made public. The controversy seemed to have died down till the rumours resurfaced in the country in December 2002, prior to the immunisation drive.

People feared the live virus in the oral polio vaccine could mutate into the wild form, and goats might have become alternative hosts.

As panic spread, nicd finally decided to declare its findings. There was no polio virus in the goats, they declared. A recent government press release stated that the people who suffered paralytic attacks did not show symptoms of polio. "Had this been a case of the vaccine virus reverting to the wild type, the disease would have struck children,' points out an nicd official. He adds: "Further studies are being carried out to detect the polio-like virus found in the goats. At present specific sera to test the antibody in goat blood is unavailable.'

Experts allege ulterior motives. According to Rajiv Tandon, consultant pediatrician and former project executive director of Rotary International Polio eradication programme, India, those promoting polio vaccines administered by injections are responsible for the rumours. Injectible vaccine manufacturers have a lot to gain if India opts for this method, he says. S Sarkar, assistant commissioner, Union ministry of health and family welfare, believes the entire exercise was a hoax to scare parents. Sarkar is in charge of the eradication programme.

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