By Taryn Russell
In the hot and dusty city of Agra, India, schoolchildren march down the streets holding signs letting everyone in the neighborhood know that today is immunization day. This is the day thousands will receive "do boond, zindagi ke" or "two drops of life", more commonly known as the polio vaccine.
When the world came together in 1998 and set a target to eradicate polio, many experts thought that India would be the last country to meet that goal. This is because India, and in particular the region of Uttar Pradesh where Agra lies, was rife with challenges that made a public health campaign of this magnitude seem hopeless. The region is densely populated. In fact if Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the fifth largest country in the world. Vast numbers of its people are poor and marginalized. Weak infrastructure makes accessing children in remote areas difficult and often dangerous. Poor sanitation practices, including open sewage, made the virus easily transmissible. Moreover, a lack of awareness about vaccines, and anxiety over their potential side effects, all contributed to the bleak assessment that Uttar Pradesh would be a laggard when it came to hitting the global target to eradicate polio.
Yet today, roughly 20 years after the world set that bold global goal, not a single child marching through the backroads of Agra on immunization day will succumb to the debilitating effects of the polio virus. After the completion of India's largest ever immunization campaign, India saw its last case of polio in 2011 and was declared polio free by the World Health Organization in 2014.
Accomplishing this goal demanded broad support. Governments at all levels coordinated the effort. International organizations provided vaccines and trained vaccinators, the millions of community health workers who made it their life's work to reach every child. Celebrities and religious leaders lent their voices to raise awareness and assure everyone that the vaccine was safe. And, perhaps most importantly, parents who often went to great lengths to ensure their children received two drops of life for a healthy future.
RESULTS Canada travelled to Agra in April 2016 to learn about India's incredible accomplishment and to encourage decision-makers from around the globe to keep the global fight to eradicate polio going. Everyone who was a part of that mission celebrated the tenacity and determination of the local government representatives, community health workers and parents they met, and left India as vocal champions.
Earlier this week, just over one year later, a different kind of celebration occurred in Atlanta. Global leaders, including Canada's Minister for International Development and la Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau, Bill Gates and even WWE wrestler John Cena gathered at a pledging conference in support of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).
"Drop to Zero" was a pledging event held in conjunction with Rotary International's milestone 100th anniversary conference. It also was a milestone in the global effort to eradicate polio for all. Thousands gathered to watch as governments, civil society and partners made concrete commitments to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
Canada, one of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative's very first donors, announced a pledge of $100 million over three years to help end the disease once and for all. Moreover, Minister Bibeau acknowledged the real heroines and heroes of this effort - the millions of community vaccinators, often women, who are the real agents of change in this campaign. Representatives from the last three endemic polio countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria were present and also made commitments to working harder than ever to reach every last child in their countries. In the end, $1.2 billion was raised to support this final push.
When we finally succeed in eradicating polio from the planet, it will be thanks to an unprecedented level of global commitment and passion. Commitment from the parents, teachers, community health workers and religious leaders who get their kids so excited about vaccination that they march in the streets. And passion from advocates around the world who have experienced the debilitating effects of the disease or know family or friends who have and now urge their governments to step up and take action.
We have not crossed the finish line yet - but the ribbon is in sight. We will succeed if global leaders continue to prioritize polio programming, providing the political will and financial resources necessary to finish the job and if we remain vigilant in vaccinating every last child. From the backroads of Agra - and throughout the world - in two years we can look forward to a celebration for the ages.
Taryn Russell is the Policy Manager at RESULTS Canada. RESULTS Canada is a global movement of passionate citizens, committed to raising our voices for a world without extreme poverty.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CCIC or its members.