Accra, May 15, 2012
Wild viruses and wildfires have two things in common. If neglected, they can spread out of control. If handled properly, they can be stamped out for good.
Today, the flame of polio is near extinction — but sparks in three countries threaten to ignite a global blaze. Now is the moment to act.
During the next two weeks, on two continents, two events offer the chance for a breakthrough. First, the leaders of the world’s largest economies — the G8 — congregate at the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David in rural Maryland. A week later, the world’s ministers of health convene in Geneva.
Together, they can push to deliver on an epic promise: to liberate humankind from one of the world’s most deadly and debilitating diseases.
The world’s war on polio, declared nearly a quarter of a century ago, was as ambitious an undertaking as the successful campaign to eradicate another great public health menace, smallpox. Slowly but surely, over the years, we have advanced on that goal.
Polio today survives in only three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. That’s the good news. The bad: we are in danger of falling victim to our own success.
Here’s why: the world is now populated by a generation which has either never been exposed to polio or has been inadequately vaccinated. When the virus strikes under those conditions, the impact can be devastating.
We saw that in the Republic of the Congo in 2010 and elsewhere in Africa when an outbreak killed half of all who were infected.
A prompt emergency response by the international community halted that budding epidemic. But the incident gives an idea of the potential consequences of failing to eradicate polio while we have the chance.
This year fewer than one hundred people were left paralyzed by this easily preventable disease, almost all in the three countries I have mentioned. Left unchecked, however, UN epidemiologists warn that a renewed outbreak could cripple as many as one million people within the decade, many of them children — the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
This threat keeps me up at night because I know how easy it is to address. My wife and I have personally immunized toddlers in Asia and Africa, joining tens of millions of government workers, Rotarian’s, volunteers, political and religious leaders (not to mention parents) who have worked for decades to ensure that every child is protected.
Most recently, we visited India, which just two years ago was home to half of all the world’s children with polio. Now, thanks to a concerted drive, we were able to celebrate India’s first polio-free year in history.
Similar efforts are under way in the three remaining polio-endemic countries. President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan each personally oversee their national response.
Nigeria has committed funds from its own treasury, and polio eradication in all three countries depends heavily on government resources.
But that in itself is not enough. With a determined push, the international community can wipe out polio once and for all. To do so, however, it must organize — and commit the required financial resources.