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Leaders at UN event unite behind final push to eradicate polio

Oral polio vaccine being administered.
UNICEF/Cornelia Walther
Oral polio vaccine being administered.

Leaders at UN event unite behind final push to eradicate polio

World leaders, donors and experts today hailed a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to eradicate polio, as they gathered at the United Nations to celebrate efforts that have already reduced the incidence of the crippling and potentially fatal disease by 99 per cent around the globe.

“Globally, we have the lowest number of cases reported this year,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the high-level event on polio eradication, which took place on the sidelines of the General Assembly debate at UN Headquarters in New York.

“But everything hinges on stopping polio in a few districts in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the three remaining countries where the disease is endemic.

The vaccine-preventable infectious disease raged in 125 countries when the global fight against it began in 1988 under the banner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). While India had long been regarded as the nation facing the greatest challenges to eradication, it has been polio free for more than 18 months.

But Mr. Ban said the success of the final push depended on the “quality” of the world’s efforts in those remaining areas.

He called not only for close cooperation from government, religious, traditional and community leaders, but also for belligerents to play their part in helping end the disease.

“Where there is fighting and insecurity, we need warring parties to allow aid workers to operate,” he told the gathering, which included the participation of Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan. “I appeal to all parties to provide safe passage for health workers to access and vaccinate children.”

Polio is among five major afflictions Mr. Ban pledged to aggressively tackle during this, his second term as Secretary-General. He is also committed to tackling malaria, new paediatric HIV infections, maternal and neonatal tetanus, and measles.

“This is a matter of health and justice. Every child should have the right to start life with equal protection from these diseases,” Mr. Ban said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) spearheads the GPEI, whose ultimate success would mark an early milestone in the Decade of Vaccines, which in turn represents a global vision to provide all children with the vaccines they need.

“No single one of us can bring this long, hard drive over the last hurdle,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said. “But together we can.”

A major GPEI donor is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose co-chair, Bill Gates, also spoke of the significance eradicating polio would have for combating other diseases.

“When we defeat polio, it will motivate us to aim for other great health and development milestones,” he said.

GPEI is currently developing a long-term roadmap for ending polio through a strategy whose investment legacy will benefit other vaccine-preventable disease goals. This comes after 194 States of the World Health Assembly declared the final push towards polio eradication to be a “programmatic emergency for global public health.”

“Governments need to step up and honour their commitments,” Wilfred J. Wilkinson, Chair of Rotary Foundation Trustees, told today’s gathering. For its part, Rotary International, which already has contributed $1.2 billion to polio eradication, announced additional funding of $75 million over three years for GPEI.

Pledges, initiatives and simple reinforcement of commitments came from a host of leaders and senior government officials, including those of Australia, Canada, Japan, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Islamic Development Bank, a new donor to the polio eradication effort, announced a three-year $227 million financing package to Pakistan, and a $3 million grant for Afghanistan.

Sandro Rosell, President, Football Club Barcelona (FCB) and FCB Foundation, announced the club’s engagement on the polio issue in collaboration with the Gates Foundation and Etisalat, the largest telecomm operator in the Middle East.

Among significant related upcoming events, some 60,000 people are expected to attend a concert in New York’s Central Park on 29 September. The organizers, Global Poverty Project, say their Global Citizen Festival aims to inspire a global movement to voice support for both eradicating polio and for advancing the group’s core cause, ending extreme poverty.