One of our country’s most remarkable achievements is something few of us think about anymore. All Americans should take pride in the fact that the world is on the verge of eradicating polio, and finishing the job for good has never been more achievable.
The fight against polio started on U.S. shores. My grandfather Franklin D. Roosevelt led the charge against the terrifying epidemic that crippled or killed thousands of children each summer. Thanks to the door-to-door campaigning of countless March of Dimes volunteers and effective vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, we successfully reduced polio to a dark chapter of American history.
But we didn’t stop at home. The U.S. government has long understood that no child is safe from polio until the disease is vanquished from the planet; it has contributed more than $2.1 billion to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) since 1985. In addition, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work closely with international colleagues to track and respond to polio outbreaks. Rotary International, headquartered in Chicago, has contributed more than $1.2 billion and deployed more than a million volunteers to protect children from polio.
Thanks in large part to U.S. leadership, the world is now more than 99 percent of the way to polio eradication. This is a historic achievement, especially considering that only one other human disease, smallpox, has ever been eradicated. Polio remains endemic in just three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. New cases dropped to 223 last year, the lowest ever recorded and more than a 60 percent decrease from 2011.
With success clearly in sight, the global community is uniting around a new plan to achieve a polio-free world this decade. Supporting this final push to eradicate polio is one of the best investments the U.S. can make.
The endgame plan, which will be released by GPEI this month, is a detailed and carefully thought-out road map to eliminate polio from the three countries where it remains. The plan builds on innovations like mobile devices and GPS to reach all children at risk for polio with preventive vaccines and contain cases that do occur. The plan offers solutions to address the difficult challenges that remain, such as violence against health workers.
In this tough economic environment, the U.S. has a duty to focus only on investments that are cost-effective, and the polio endgame plan passes this test. Eradicating polio would not just save lives, it would also save money. A 2010 study estimates that the work of the GPEI is expected to yield $40 billion to $50 billion in benefits, mostly to the poorest countries. And eradicating the disease also saves us the ongoing financial and human cost of keeping polio at bay. Because of polio’s highly contagious nature, any lapse in effort could allow it to make a comeback. The World Health Organization estimates that stopping supplementary immunization campaigns – a likely outcome of insufficient funding – could lead to as many as 200,000 cases per year within 10 years.
Just as importantly, eradicating polio sets the stage for reaching all children with vital vaccines. The knowledge, infrastructure and technology created by the polio network will be used to improve child health across the board. This is already happening – in the state of Bihar in India, the infrastructure built and lessons learned from the polio program helped increase routine immunization coverage from less than 20 percent in 2005 to nearly 70 percent in 2010, protecting millions of children against common yet deadly diseases.
Continued U.S. leadership on polio eradication is crucial because it drives support from other partners. This year, Germany allocated $100 million for polio eradication, and Canada and Japan also announced new commitments. New players have joined the fight, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently pledged $100 million to implement the Strategic Plan. Additional commitments are expected later this month at the Global Vaccine Summit, a high-level gathering of international leaders convened by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Bill Gates.
At this tipping point, we must be unwavering in our resolve to end polio. Achieving a polio-free world is a major step toward protecting the world’s children from all vaccine-preventable diseases. It’s an investment that the U.S. has been making for decades. Now, at the cusp of victory and with the world with us, is not the time to step back.