Bipartisan support will be critical to ending polio

In a year fraught with political tensions, let me share some good news. America’s leaders agree that investing in the health and wellbeing of children around the world is one of the best investments our country can make. 

From the global eradication of smallpox in the 1970s to the development of new vaccines to tackle child killers like diarrhea and pneumonia in the past decade, the U.S. has led the way in expanding access to health. The global impact of these efforts is striking: the number of children who die before their fifth birthday has decreased by half, as has the number of mothers who die in childbirth.

ADVERTISEMENT

Global health has long been a bipartisan cause. In 2003, President George W. Bush launched the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which provides U.S. governmental support for HIV prevention and care programs and supports multilateral efforts such as the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Just last month, the Obama administration pledged $4.3 billion dollars to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — the largest contribution of any nation.

Another example of our global health leadership is the critical support the U.S. provides for the eradication of polio, a devastating disease that is close to being wiped off the face of the earth. In fact, if eradication efforts are sustained, the new Administration and new Congress could see the end of polio entirely.

The U.S. commitment to eradicating polio dates back to 1916, when New York City was struck with the first major outbreak of the disease in the country – a historic epidemic that launched what would become a truly global campaign to develop a vaccine and end this disease. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was paralyzed by polio himself in the 1920s, founded the March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that gave aid to Americans suffering from polio and funded research for vaccines. In the 1950s, Americans Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin made breakthrough vaccine discoveries that have driven the disease to the verge of eradication today.

After polio was eliminated in the U.S. in 1979, attention shifted to the rest of the globe, and the following years saw an expanded effort to tackle the disease across the world. In 1988, the global case count stood at 350,000, and the World Health Assembly resolved to eradicate this disease once and for all. This led to the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – a partnership spearheaded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, Rotary International, and UNICEF, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Tackling polio has required global collaboration led by the GPEI, with sustained commitment from donors, health workers, partner organizations and political leaders at all levels. The impact has been dramatic, with case counts plummeting more than 99 percent since 1988. There have been fewer cases recorded to date in 2016 than in any other year in history (27 at the time of writing). And over 16 million children today can play without leg braces and wheelchairs, thanks to this partnership.

There is a great deal we can learn from this effort and apply to other global health challenges.

For example, when Ebola made its way into Nigeria in July 2014, the country’s polio surveillance system was key to tackling the deadly disease. It was used to help track the Ebola outbreak, and the existing network of laboratory testing facilities allowed experts to quickly test samples for the virus. Perhaps most critically, the national polio Emergency Operations Center model was replicated so that experts from government and international agencies could collaborate to stop Ebola in its tracks and avert what could have been a much larger outbreak.

Of course, the global effort to end polio has not been without challenges –it is incredibly difficult to eradicate a disease. This was made clear when Nigeria experienced a polio out break this past summer, two years after its last detected case. However, we have successfully overcome setbacks in the past and are forging on to end polio once and for all.

With polio remaining in only three countries (Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan), the new Administration and new Congress will have an important opportunity to consign this dreadful disease to the history books by sustaining support for eradication efforts.

This World Polio Day, let’s not forget how the continued leadership from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. has been, and will continue to be, essential to ending polio. Americans want a safe, healthy, and prosperous world, and giving all children the opportunity to lead a healthy and productive life is something we can all support. 

Dr. Chris Elias is the president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he leads efforts on a diverse range of program areas aimed at finding creative new ways to ensure solutions and products get into the hands of people in poor countries who need them most.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.