- LEORA, India (CNN) -- India is fighting an ancient war here in this
desert village, not against an armed enemy, but against the scourge of
- Cases of polio are reported from almost
every district in the country, and an estimated 10 million children have
not been immunized, according to the World Health Organization, which has
set a goal of eradicating polio in India by 2000.
- Although the number of new polio cases
reported in India has dropped from 4,791 in 1994 to 2,489 in 1997, WHO
says a great deal of work remains before the disease can be eliminated.
- The health agency is trying to get parents
to have their children immunized, and it is also trying to change the image
of those who suffer from polio, so that they can be accepted into the mainstream,
and lead productive lives.
- Stopping a deadly virus
- The Indian government undertook an assault
on polio two years ago. On one day last December, 125 million children
were given oral vaccines across the country, followed by booster vaccines
in January and March.
- Using neighborhood awareness campaigns,
health workers set out to immunize virtually every child in India, but
millions remain unprotected.
- The highly infectious polio virus spreads
to the spinal cord and brain, causing paralysis and sometimes death. Poor
sanitation -- a hallmark of India's filthy cities and villages -- contributes
to the virus' spread.
- Shunned by children
- Young victims of the war on polio still
fight difficult daily battles. In the dusty village of Leora in India's
western desert, children shriek in joy while playing cricket with a broken
bat and a tennis ball.
- But Asruddin, who is 10, is shunned by
children his age because of his useless, thin legs. Getting out of the
unpaved courtyard of his house onto the narrow lanes, Asruddin crawls
on all fours or walks on his hands, with his long thin legs crossed behind
his back. His palms are calloused and rough like the soles of other children's
- Asruddin's parents did not take him for
the doses of anti-polio vaccine that most health care centers in India
provide. "When I go out, all the people call me a monkey," said
Asruddin, wearing an old shirt and trousers torn at the knees from dragging
on the ground.
- A change for the better
- But with help from local charitable groups,
Asruddin is fighting the stigma. Early this year, volunteers gave him lessons
for three months to prepare him for mainstream education in the classroom.
Barely one person in five in his village can read and write.
- He now goes to school each day, helps
his elder brother sew clothes at his tailor shop, and, in the evening,
struggles with his third grade mathematics books in the dim yellow light
of a rusted iron lantern.
- Asruddin's success in adjusting to his
disease is being held out as an important example in the crusade against
polio. In India's cities, the image of a polio victim is often of an ill-clothed,
handicapped child on a street corner, begging from cars at traffic lights.
- Sometimes Asruddin heads out on the village
lanes in an improvised wheelchair given by a charity. "I want to become
a teacher when I grow up," he said, drying in the sun after his bath,
"and help other children like me."