Opinion | Healthcare

Funding the fight against polio

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America has long been defined by its leadership in pushing the boundaries of possibilities. From the moon landing to the creation of the internet, our country has pursued the kind of goals that leave the world forever changed. My former congressional colleagues have the power to help realize one such generation-defining goal: the eradication of polio. 

For centuries, polio killed and paralyzed, and humanity could do nothing to stop it. While the virus has always been a global tragedy, the drive to end polio has long been part of America's story: President Franklin D. Roosevelt - a polio survivor himself - hosted the first "March of Dimes" fundraiser; Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh; thousands of Rotarians made history in Philadelphia when they launched the international push for a polio-free world. 

In 1988, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - along with the World Health Organization, Rotary International and UNICEF - formed the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), later joined by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Since then, the world has seen an incredible 99 percent reduction in cases of wild poliovirus. 

But today that progress is at risk. While only two countries reported cases of wild polio last year (Afghanistan: 21 cases; Pakistan: 12 cases), conflict and weak health systems continue to make it difficult for health workers to reach the most vulnerable children with the vaccine. 

Even in countries long rid of the wild poliovirus, low immunization rates and barriers to immunization access mean the virus could reemerge. Myths and misinformation about vaccines -- accelerated by social media -- have exacerbated this risk, leading to questions, albeit unfounded, about the vaccine's safety and undermining parents' trust in immunization.  

With so much on the line, the next few years will be the most defining period of the eradication effort. Last month, the GPEI released a new five-year strategy to bring the world to zero wild polio cases. Along with the strategy came a call for the financial and political backing needed to stop this disease.

It's not the first time the GPEI has called for support, but it has never been more crucial that we - as Americans - answer.

During my tenure in congress, I championed smart investments in foreign aid, including global health programs to eradicate polio. I know the value of these programs first-hand. 

By funding the fight against polio, this Congress has an opportunity to help eradicate a disease for the second time in history and ensure that the world's investments deliver the ultimate gift to future generations: a polio-free world.

From remote islands to sprawling urban slums, the polio program has pioneered best practices for reaching children in the world's most challenging settings. The GPEI has learned how to quash outbreaks quickly; how to find the virus before it finds a child; how to teach people who have never even seen a vaccine why they are important. Even more critically, the polio program has found the right partners: educators, vaccinators, and religious and community leaders who are known and respected. 

Building on these proven methods, the GPEI is ramping up efforts to engage and protect communities. The polio program is establishing standing teams of experts to accelerate outbreak response and strengthening its partnerships with development organizations like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to support other health needs like routine immunization, sanitation and nutrition. Tactics like these will be critical to increasing communities' trust in the polio vaccine and getting ahead of rapidly-evolving challenges.

None of these efforts can be realized without the financial and political commitment of the global community. Over the next five years, the program will need $3.27 billion to protect the progress we've made and close the final gap to end this debilitating virus. 

Alongside other longstanding donors, US commitment will be especially crucial. American institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and US Agency for International Development are critical sources of the funding and technical expertise needed to train health workers and maintain disease-tracking systems in communities most vulnerable to polio.

The returns on achieving a polio-free world will extend as long as future generations live free from the virus. Already, eradication efforts have generated $27 billion in savings. Stepping back on our commitment now could threaten those gains, risking a resurgence that could see 200,000 children paralyzed annually within a decade. Inaction would also undermine our broader health security, particularly Americans who travel abroad - as the world misses out on the chance to leverage the tools, workers and surveillance systems used for the fight against polio to support the efforts against other deadly health threats.

It is these costs - measured in lives damaged or lost, and in outbreaks undetected - that America truly cannot afford. 

For decades, Americans have led the push to realize a polio-free world for future generations - not because it was easy, but because it was worth it. It still is.  

Former Senator Mark Kirk is a United Nations Foundation Vandenberg fellow who served in the U.S. Senate from 2010 to 2016 and represented Illinois's 10th Congressional District for 10 years in the House. While in the Senate, he served on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS), where he championed increases to the international affairs budget and global health programs.

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