Polio on the verge of being wiped out, says minister

India has not had a new case of polio in nine months, raising hopes the country is on the verge of defeating the disease, health officials said yesterday.

Ridding itself of polio would be a major symbolic milestone for a nation desperate to move past its image as a Third World country and take its place as a major global player.

India remains one of only four countries in the world where polio is still endemic, and the nine months that it has been without a case is the longest since eradication efforts were launched nearly two decades ago. "We are close to our goal, but are not taking any chances," said the Health Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Polio usually infects children under the age of five through contaminated drinking water. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.

While polio has been eradicated in Europe, the Americas, much of Asia and Australia, it remains endemic in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

The last new case in India was reported in January in West Bengal state and none has been reported in the traditional polio areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states in more than a year, Mr Azad said.

A country is declared polio free when no cases of the disease are reported for three years, according to the World Health Organisation. AP