Lessons from India's Winning War Against Polio

India's milestone in fighting polio was accomplished by a variety of forces working together.

By + More

Salvatore Alesci is vice president of scientific affairs at Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Recently, the world learned about a huge step forward in polio eradication: India, one of only four countries in the world where polio remains a threat to people, has gone one full year without new diagnoses.

This doesn't mean full eradication; the World Health Organization (WHO) will not declare it as fully polio-free for another two years. And it's possible that the virus remains in the environment and, especially considering India's dense population and sanitation concerns, could still lead to a new infection. However, it shows real and significant medical progress against a crippling, incurable disease—progress that may be replicated around the world in our battles against countless diseases.

After all, in the mid-1990s, India reported between 50,000 and 150,000 new cases of polio annually. By 2009, 741 children contracted the disease; in 2010, only 42 patients were diagnosed. And on January 13, 2011, the last case appeared—and would be the only diagnosis for the year, or since.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

Quite clearly, this could not have been accomplished in India or in any other country without the polio vaccines that have armed us against the disease. But it is also a testament to the importance of collaborations in the world of healthcare.

In 1988, WHO launched its polio eradication campaign, inspired by the successes of the previous smallpox eradication effort, in partnership with UNICEF and Rotary International. Despite their best efforts, the collaboration found itself limited by challenges that compounded each other, from the lack of a public health infrastructure to the skepticism of many of India's parents.

It took seven years before the Indian government embraced collaboration. From there, additional partnerships blossomed, including contributions from the biopharmaceutical sector.

The battle against polio in India has turned into our most recent healthcare success story, and we can only hope that we will soon see similar results in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan —the three countries in which the disease remains endemic.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Given The Current Deficit Crisis, Should Foreign Aid Be Cut?]

But here in America, where we have been polio-free since 1984, we can look at India's story as inspiration as we focus on battling other diseases. In so doing, we must recognize that without partnership and collaboration, we will never succeed.

In the field of drug development, biopharmaceutical companies have long worked in partnerships—with academia, with government researchers, with patients' associations and even with each other—to foster growth and innovation in our understanding of science and in how we apply that science to create real products that will serve the greater good.

Now, at a time when budgets are tight, we find ourselves turning to partnerships more and more, recognizing that flexible, dynamic models leave us all more agile, as well as more prepared to take advantage of opportunities for scientific advancement. Despite occasionally being viewed with skepticism, partnerships do not signify lessened dedication or an "easy way out." Rather, true partnerships are becoming increasingly essential to maintaining high levels of innovation, improving efficiencies, and preserving productivity.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

The fact of the matter is, no one body—not world-class universities, not the National Institutes of Health, and not private research-based biopharmaceutical companies—can know it all and do it all. That's why we must share strengths and resources and work together toward our common goal of conquering unmet medical needs.

India's experience battling polio has demonstrated that collaboration goes beyond the bench; for full success, it must extend to the bedside.

In America, again, we are fortunate to be free of some of the diseases, like polio, that used to plague us. However, countless challenges remain—and with them, our strong desire to eradicate them. HIV/AIDS, for example, has evolved in just 30 years from a little-understood death sentence to a controllable chronic disease. In the last year alone, as scientists around the globe are hunting for a cure, research data has shown tremendous progress and hope for the future.