When I look at pictures of three-and-a-half-year-old Rukhsar, the last reported case of wild polio in India, all I can think is that could have been me. With her round brown face and her direct gaze, she even looks like I did when I was a toddler. My Indian parents who migrated to North America never received their polio vaccine when they were infants. When my sister and I were born, they proudly took us to receive our vaccine against a disease they had seen so many suffer from.
Rukhsar’s life is very different from mine. At the age of 2, she stood up for the first time. She walks with an unnoticeable slight limp. This is a major milestone for a child who was diagnosed with polio in her left limb at 18 months. Rukhsar is the image of polio eradication in India and abroad as she represents the last in a generation that will not have to see and may even forget this disease. Not just in West Bengal where Rukhsar is from, but all around the world, the lessons of what it takes to eradicate polio in a nation of over a billion people are being spread far and wide.
In an interview with The Hindu, Rukhsar’s father, Abdul Shah talks about his daughter and her role in public health history. The Hindu states, “Abdul Shah himself has been speaking to people in the area urging them to allow volunteers to administer the oral polio vaccine to their children. He regrets that his daughter missed out on the vaccine, recounting with horror, the long hours that Rukhsar’s body burned with fever, her leg swollen as she lay listless at home.”
Our partners at UNICEF have volunteers in neighboring villages, yet none of them have ever met Rukhsar, or her family. But Rukhsar’s photographs were part of awareness campaigns in all villages. News of her affliction have encouraged others to immunize. A concerted effort of health care workers, social mobilizers, UN agencies, USAID and the Indian government have resulted in India’s now 2 year anniversary of being polio free.
Let’s celebrate Rukhsar for her ability to thrive despite a challenging disease, but also for her role in changing the course of history to help give children a shot at a healthy life. A polio-free India is a critical step towards a polio-free world.