Conspiracy Theories Are the Reason We Still Have Polio

The Taliban, Boko Haram and antivaxxers have this one thing in common.


At a train station in Bareilly, a dusty mid-sized city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, teenage health workers wove through crowded platforms armed with small bottles of polio vaccination drops. They were looking for kids tiny enough to be under five years old, kids without the ink stain on their finger indicating they’d already been vaccinated.

Watching the moms in January convinced me that India’s decades-long campaign against polio is working. Moms don’t let strangers, even ones with official-looking bright yellow aprons, give their kids medicine unless they know it’s both important and legitimate. And now that it’s been six years since India’s last reported cases of poliovirus, which can lead to crippling deformities and paralysis, they know that these oral drops are vital without the pro-vaccination pamphlets or Bollywood actors in television ads saying so.

India announced that it had officially eradicated polio back in 2014 after a 20-year campaign that cost at least $200 million every year it was in effect. The Polio Pulse program was an unexpected success given the country’s population of 1.2 billion and rocky public health record. It was carried out by the government, nonprofit groups, and agencies like the World Health Organization and United Nations, with an effective combination of injectable and oral vaccines. India’s results helped the global number of polio cases drop from 350,000 in 1988 to just 74 in 2015.

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