In the last century, the mere mention of the word polio would strike terror in mothers. In Canada, polio was diagnosed in nearly 9,000 people and caused 500 deaths in 1953 alone. Although it strikes primarily children under five years old, even the most powerful man in the world, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, succumbed to it. But times have changed. In 1988, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution to eradicate polio. This resulted in the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in the same year.
The GPEI is a public-private partnership led by national governments with five partners - the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This partnership has produced stellar results with the number of cases worldwide has being reduced by 99% and today there are over 10 million people walking who would have otherwise been paralyzed by polio.
You would be mistaken if you think the GPEI and its partners are resting on their laurels. In fact, it's quite the opposite. In a joint press release by UNICEF and the WHO, between March 25 and 28 more than 190,000 polio vaccinators in 13 countries across west and central Africa will immunize more than 116 million children in one of the largest synchronized vaccination campaigns of its kind. "Volunteers and health workers will work up to 12 hours per day, travelling on foot or bicycle, in often stifling humidity and temperatures in excess of 40°C. They will carry heavy special carrier bags filled with ice packs to ensure the vaccine remains below the required 8°C," according to the press release.
Conflict and political strife have been major impediments to the global campaign. One journalist observed you could almost use a map of political hotspots as a proxy for areas of polio outbreaks and endemic regions such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. The prevalent mass movement of people makes it all the more difficult to ensure complete coverage. But in a positive development, many local political and religious leaders, once vehemently against immunizations, have seen the light and are allowing health workers to continue their work without having to fear for their personal safety.
Even though Canada has been declared polio-free since 1991, we still vaccinate our kids because until polio is eradicated around the world, no one is totally safe, even in Canada. It is important to remember that this both a domestic and international issue.
The GPEI has set out a viable roadmap to vaccinate the remaining 1% by 2019, but it requires an extra USD$1.5 billion from donors. This would enable 450 million children in 60 countries to be vaccinated each year and a focus in three key areas: 1) trying to reach the most challenging areas in the world; 2) environmental monitoring of water sources; and 3) heightened surveillance in 70 countries including 20 considered high-risk due to breaches in vaccine coverage.
At the risk of using the over-used phrase "too big to fail", failure would jeopardize 25 years of hard work and USD$9 billion of investments. Polio could come back with a vengeance with cases skyrocketing to 200,000 annually within 10 years. The economic costs of failure due to additional treatment costs and lost productivity is estimated to exceed $35 billion USD. This is no time for complacency.
Conversely, GPEI is already thinking about its legacy beyond polio eradication by helping countries plan for a post-polio world where the lessons learned and the human and technical polio infrastructure could be used to support other widespread health programs.
Like a marathon runner who draws on their own resolve to finish the last mile of a race, Canada, who was at the starting line of GPEI's marathon, must also find its own resolve to help GPEI cross the finish line by making a top-up pledge of $50 million CDN a year for the next three years, about 1% of our ODA budget. For this modest amount, we can be a part of this great human endeavour to eradicate only the second disease in history, small pox being the other. At the call for pledges in June, Canada must help put polio where it belongs: in a museum.
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