Health officials say there has not been a case of polio in India for nine months, the longest the country has ever been polio free.

One of only four countries in the world where polio is endemic, India has been desperate to rid itself of it as it strives to lose the image of being a Third World country and become a major player in the global sphere, The Associated Press reported. The nine months it has been without a case is the longest since eradication efforts were launched nearly two decades ago raises hopes India is on its way.

We are close to our goal, but are not taking any chances, said Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Efforts will be further intensified in the country to stop any residual polio virus circulation and also prevent any polio cases following an international importation.

The last case reported was in January in West Bengal state; no cases have been reported in the typical polio hot spots of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in more than a year, Azad said. A country is declared polio-free when no cases are reported for three years, according to the World Health Organization.

A highly infectious disease, polio tends to strike children through contaminated drinking water. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and sometimes death.

This year is extremely crucial for India to capitalize on the rembarkable progress made so far and stop [the] polio virus transmission forever, said Nata Menabde, WHO representative in India. The present situation is indeed very promising but also extremely challenging.

India's success has followed persistent efforts over the last few years in the highest-risk areas and in reaching the most vulnerable populations, such as newborns, migrants and mobile populations, Azad said.

Every year, India holds two national immunization days in January and February to administer a vaccine to nearly 170 million children. There is no cure for polio.