It’s World Polio Day – Time to Make History

Oct. 24 is World Polio Day, an opportunity to share a message of extreme importance: The global community must step up now with the resources needed to eradicate this crippling childhood disease once and for all.

John Hewko

John Hewko, CEO and General-Secretary of Rotary International

In all of history, smallpox is the only human disease to be eradicated. It’s time to make global health history a second time by wiping out polio. And that can only happen by reaching every child in every corner of the world with the oral polio vaccine.

On behalf of the 1.2 million men and women of Rotary International, I invite everyone within the biotech community to lend their support to polio eradication in a way that’s actually rather fun — by participating in the World’s Biggest Commercial. Beginning Oct. 24, just go to the new polio eradication website, endpolionow.org, to upload a photo of yourself making the “this close” gesture – as in, we are “this close” to eradicating polio – into the ever-expanding promotional spot. In doing so, you’ll rub virtual shoulders with people like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, philanthropist Bill Gates, violinist Itzhak Perlman, actress Amanda Peet, and other notables who support Rotary International and our partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

The idea is to demonstrate to our world leaders that there is a strong and growing chorus of concerned global citizens from all walks of life who demand a polio-free world. Being “this close” is good, but not good enough.

You see, with new polio cases at an all-time low, the time has never been better to deliver the coup de grace to this insidious disease. Yet, the risk of failure is high. That may sound contradictory, but it’s true.

Despite the incredible progress posted by the polio eradication initiative since its launch in 1988 – a more than 99 percent decline in cases, from 350,000 annually to fewer than 700 last year — a current $700 million budget shortfall threatens to derail the entire effort, setting up polio for what could be a devastating rebound.

By one estimate, more than 200,000 children a year could be paralyzed by a polio resurgence. Also at stake is the world’s $9 billion investment in polio eradication to date, plus the estimated $40 -$50 billion in economic benefits and savings that would accrue in the decades immediately following eradication.

The world’s governments must act now to close the funding gap so that health workers and vaccinators can reach every child with the oral polio vaccine. That is the only way the disease can be stopped for good. As long as polio exists anywhere in the world, all unvaccinated children remain at risk, no matter where they live.

It is especially crucial to stop the transmission of polio in the three endemic countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria – in order to stanch the flow of imported infections into previously polio-free countries.

In September, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened a special session on polio eradication to urge UN member states to increase funding for polio eradication. Top leaders from the endemic countries pledged to give eradication their highest priority, and several donor countries announced new commitments. Rotary, the original private sector partner in the polio eradication initiative, pledged $75 million in new money over the next three years, adding to our total commitment of nearly $1.2 billion.

Rotary’s leadership in polio eradication — and that of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also has contributed more than $1 billion — demonstrates how the private sector can play a major role in addressing the world’s most serious issues.

Polio eradication also will show how success builds momentum. Two-plus decades of polio eradication work has brought many thousands of health workers into remote, isolated, and impoverished communities on a regular basis for the first time. Millions of families have been introduced to the concept of basic preventive health care. Delivery systems and lab networks are in place, vital infrastructure that can be repurposed to address other important health needs in the post-eradication era. Polio vaccinators experienced in delivering health services under challenging conditions can be retrained and redeployed.

There is absolutely no reason why polio cannot become the next disease to be vanquished. It’s simply a matter of securing the resources sufficient to reach every last child with the oral polio vaccine.  But if we fail as a global community to seize the opportunity now before us, we risk triggering a devastating new round of polio epidemics that could paralyze millions of children within a decade.

We cannot afford to let that happen. The world needs a global health success story, and polio eradication is it. Together, we can end polio now.

John Hewko is CEO and General-Secretary of Rotary International. Based in Evanston, Ill., Rotary is a humanitarian service organization of 1.2 million men and women belonging to more than 34,000 Rotary clubs in over 200 countries and geographical areas. Rotary’s top priority is the eradication of polio.

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