The last polio victim in India

CNN ran the story of Rukhsar Khatoon, a four-year old girl who is the last recorded case of polio in India. She contracted the disease in 2011 when she was just 18 months old. She had not been vaccinated against the disease but this was not a case of anti-vaxxer parents. They had held off vaccinating her because “she was a sickly child, in and out of hospital with liver infections and diarrhea” and “they thought it safer not to subject her to more medication.” They now bitterly blame themselves for her condition.

While they initially thought that she may never walk again, fortunately it seems that she will, though with a limp.

In Shahpara, Rukhsar plays with her brothers and sisters and other children on the bone-dry earth, the dirt forming clouds beneath their feet. The effects of polio were not severe as they could have been, and after exhaustive therapy, Rukhsar is able to use her legs.

She is not unlike the other barefoot children in this village of palms and ponds except that she has a limp. Her right leg is shorter than her left, a condition that is common with polio patients. She complains that her right foot hurts when she runs and jumps.

Learning from their own mistake, Rukhsar’s parents have become advocates for polio vaccinations in their part of the world. Shah is thankful his daughter was not left immobile, but still, he worries for her future.

It is a tremendous achievement for a huge country like India to eradicate polio in the face of extreme poverty, many remote and inaccessible regions, and opposition from ignorant religious people especially in Muslim communities.

That part of the story makes me (someone who also had polio as a child) feel immensely glad. But at the same time there is a sad flavor to it. I wonder how little Rukshar will cope growing up with the knowledge that she was the last victim of this deadly disease. Will she wear it as a badge of honor? Or will she feel a sense of grievance that she was unlucky enough that the disease was not halted a tiny bit earlier before it reached her?

I can relate to her because I was one of the last large cohort of people to get polio before the widespread programs with the Salk and Sabin vaccines began the eradication of the disease worldwide. But I was extremely fortunate to have a family that could provide me with the resources to deal with it and have had a good life and I feel no sense of grievance.

But Rukshar’s family is poor. Her father makes about $40 a month embroidering sarees. I hope she finds the strength and the support to overcome her illness and live her life as a symbol of the advancement of science and enlightened public health policy.


  1. says

    They now bitterly blame themselves for her condition.

    I hope they don’t do so for very long. To me it was a very reasonable action taken after assessing the risk to an already sickly child. Sometimes you have to make a choice between two undesirable options and just hope things work out.

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