India Desperate for Vaccines Even as Many Americans Rebuff Them
India’s remarkable triumph over polio shows it can defeat massive public health challenges—but not when it lacks the vaccines that go unused in places like the U.S.
In January 2020, as the world was only just beginning to hear about a new coronavirus making its way through, and out of, China, I was flying home from Delhi, India. I had been there for just over a week with Rotary International to observe and report on India’s National Immunization Day, a big part of their global polio eradication campaign. I’ve reflected on what I learned while reporting during those couple of days again and again throughout the pandemic, but especially in the past several weeks as I’ve read about the heartbreaking devastation of Covid-19 in India.
I can’t help but compare the country’s remarkable achievement in eliminating polio in 2014 — just five years after having more than 60% of all the world’s polio cases — to their current fight against a disease for which we have multiple highly effective vaccines — but not enough of them accessible to the Indian people.
What makes this all the more heartbreaking is having seen what India can accomplish when they do have access to Covid-19 vaccines — and how many Americans have access to those vaccines but aren’t getting them.
Some background: In January every year, thousands of Rotary volunteers join with local volunteers and public health departments to deliver two drops of oral polio vaccine to every child in India. In 2020, approximately 170 million Indian children received the vaccine. Polio was eliminated from India in 2014 thanks to robust nationwide vaccination efforts, but it continues to circulate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since India shares more than 2000 miles of border with Pakistan, India has to maintain rigorous surveillance to ensure that polio doesn’t return.
The oral polio vaccine, unlike the inactivated polio vaccine administered via injections here in the U.S., provides passive immunity to others in the community, particularly in areas with poor sanitation. It’s also cheaper, provides longer lasting immunity, and doesn’t require medical training to administer…