Wild viruses and wildfires have two things in common. If neglected, they can spread out of control. If handled properly, they can be stamped out for good. Today, the flame of polio is near extinction but sparks in three countries threaten to ignite a global blaze.
During the next two weeks, two events offer the chance for a breakthrough. First, the leaders of the world’s largest economies, the G8, congregate at the US presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland. A week later, the world’s ministers of health convene in Geneva. Together, they can push to deliver on an epic promise: to liberate humankind from one of the world’s most deadly and debilitating diseases.
The world’s war on polio, declared nearly a quarter of a century ago, was as ambitious an undertaking as the successful campaign to eradicate another great public health menace, smallpox. Slowly but surely, over the years, we have advanced on that goal. Polio, today, survives in only three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. That’s the good news. The bad: we are in danger of falling victim to our own success.
Here’s why: the world is now populated by a generation which has either never been exposed to polio or has been inadequately vaccinated. When the virus strikes under those conditions, the impact can be devastating. A prompt emergency response by the international community halted the 2010 budding epidemic in the Republic of Congo and elsewhere in Africa. But the incident gives an idea of the potential consequences of failing to eradicate polio while we have the chance. This year, fewer than one hundred people were left paralysed by this easily preventable disease, in the three countries. Left unchecked, however, UN epidemiologists warn that a renewed outbreak could cripple as many as one million people within the decade, many of them children.
Efforts to eradicate polio are under way in the three remaining polio-endemic countries. President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan each personally oversee their national response. Polio eradication depends heavily on government resources. But that in itself is not enough. With a determined push, the international community can wipe out polio once and for all. To do so, however, it must organise and commit the required financial resources.
The United Nations, with its partner Rotary International, is driving the global campaign. Our agencies are working hard to reach all children. It may be difficult but it can be done. Somalia, to name but one example, is afflicted by just about every human and natural hardship known to humankind — but not polio. Its last case was in 2007, thanks in no small part to local women who travelled their communities distributing vaccination drops.
The workers on the frontlines have no shortage of dedication. But they do face a financial deficit. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has only half of the two billion dollars it needs to procure vaccines and deploy staff to the last bastions of the disease. Properly equipped, they can win this final battle. If the international community recognises the stakes and musters the resources, we can win the war against polio forever.
Now is the critical moment. If we invest two billion dollars now, we can save the world an estimated $40-50 billion in the cost of treatment by 2035, not to mention many lives and many young futures. When the world’s health ministers gather in Geneva later this month, they will declare a global public health emergency and call on the world to respond to the threat of resurgent polio. As the G8 leaders meet at Camp David, they should be aware of what is coming and recognise this great opportunity to act in the name of the world’s people.
Those meetings will soon be followed by others: the annual gathering of the G20 in Mexico, the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil and the European Union summit in Belgium. I hope polio will be on the agenda. I appeal to all leaders, everywhere, to act now to protect future generations. By funding the Global Polio Emergency Action Plan for the next two years, we can make the threat of polio a distant and fading memory.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2012.
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