India Beats Polio. Global Eradication Within Reach

This is a special guest post from Timothy E. Wirth, President, United Nations Foundation. A version of this is cross posted at the Huffington Post .

This week the world celebrates a major milestone in the global fight against polio. On January 13, India will mark one year in which no child was paralyzed by polio – for the first time in history.

Two years ago India had more polio cases than any other country. In just two short years, the country has taken giant steps to protect its children, while helping end polio globally forever.

India’s achievement demonstrates that we can put a stop to polio and that we must remain focused on that goal. It takes strong political will, with governments, the United Nations, non-profits and corporations working together, persistent efforts to implement high-quality eradication strategies, and a continued financial commitment.

We join India in celebrating this historic milestone, and in congratulating the Government of India, the United Nations, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other partners who made this achievement possible. It is their hard work, commitment and dedication – of time, money, strength and exertion – which has put India on the path to stopping polio. These partners are bringing the world closer to eradicating polio once and for all, protecting all children from being crippled by this debilitating disease.

Strides against polio have been significant: the disease has been reduced by 99 percent globally. In 1988, polio paralyzed 1,000 children each day around the world. Now, thanks to global immunization campaigns, only one child is paralyzed each day, and thousands of people worldwide are working urgently to reduce this to zero. Thanks to their efforts and the polio vaccine, eradication is within reach.

India overcame huge challenges to stop transmission of polio, including its high birth rate, large population, hard-to-reach migrant communities and resistance to oral polio vaccine in high-risk populations. India’s progress is proof that polio eradication can be achieved anywhere in the world, even in the most challenging conditions.

India’s success is also a reminder that we can’t stop now. While tackling the last percent of polio cases is both challenging and expensive, it is essential to global health, because polio anywhere poses a threat everywhere. In an age of globalization, germs cross borders without a passport. Polio eradication efforts are now focused on Nigeria and Pakistan, two of just three countries where the disease is endemic.  But the fight truly is global; routine immunizations must continue worldwide. The disease is now re-emerging in places that had been polio-free for years, reminding us that polio could come back with a vengeance if we don’t inoculate children everywhere.

India now joins the nations of the world that have stopped polio and offers a more promising tomorrow for future generations. To maintain that dream, India must remain vigilant and continue working at full force to protect children against polio until global eradication is achieved.

Childhood immunity must be maintained through the improvement of routine immunization coverage and high quality supplementary immunization activities in order to guard against re-importation of wild poliovirus and a large polio outbreak.

The benefit of these investments will go beyond polio eradication, as the infrastructure and systems put into place also support other eradication efforts from vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles.

At the United Nations Foundation, polio eradication has been a main focus of our work since we started in 1998 and with the help of partners we have catalyzed more than $200 million for polio eradication efforts. We’re proud to work with partners like UNICEF, Rotary International, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and many national governments to make sure no child will ever again know the crippling effects of polio.

And we all have a role to play in protecting children from polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases. The UN Foundation is a founding partner in the Measles Initiative which has supported over 80 countries and vaccinated over one billion children to reduce global measles mortality by 78 percent since 2000. The Measles Initiative, the largest grant program at the UN Foundation, is built solidly upon the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

To make it easy for individuals to join the global effort, the UN Foundation and its partners recently unveiled Shot@Life, a new vaccines campaign to raise awareness and funds among Americans to help the United Nations and the GAVI Alliance provide support to countries for vaccinations.  We are talking with parents across the country and with policy makers in Congress to support efforts to reduce vaccine preventable childhood deaths around the world. By raising awareness and funds, advocating for greater commitment in Washington, and working with the UN, this campaign will help decrease vaccine-preventable child deaths and give every child a shot at a healthy life.

I know we can stop polio if we remain focused. Together, we can make polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases a chapter in our children’s history books.