Major Polio Meeting on the Sidelines of the General Assembly

“Bill Gates called me in Kabul,” said Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “He told me the steps I should take to further the fight against polio in my country.”

As Karzai spoke those words, Bill Gates was to his right, seated next to Pakistan president Asif Ali Zidari. To left were Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.  Rounding out the panel on stage were Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Ban Ki Moon —  all gathered for a high level meeting on Polio. UN Foundation President Senator Tim Wirth moderated. UNICEF chief Anthony Lake and WHO director general Margaret Chan were among a dozen others offering their remarks.

Senator Wirth hailed this meeting as “the most important meeting on polio in 20 years.” He was arguably correct. 20 years ago, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative kicked off a worldwide drive to rid the disease from the face of the earth. They have very nearly succeeded. Today, there are only three countries on the planet in which polio remains endemic: Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

All three presidents were on stage today, devoting their time during a very busy UN week to attend a two hour meeting about a once and final push for global polio eradication.

This is very much an achievable goal.  Polio incidents are at an all time low. So far this year, there have been only 145 confirmed cased, compared to over 400 by this time last year. India has been polio free for 18 months, which shows that polio vaccination campaigns can succeed even in the most complex of countries.

The event today underscored that there’s immense political support for polio eradication in the countries that matter most. What is still lacking, though, is funding to see this through.  The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is reporting a funding gap of $790 million against a $2.19 billion requirement. This funding gap threatens to undermine the immense progress that has been made against polio in recent years.

At the high level event at the United Nations today some new funding sources were announced, including another $75 million from Rotary International (which is on top of the $1.2 billion that they have provided to date); and a new Gates-backed financing scheme from the Islamic Development Bank, which is offering a $227 million financing package to Pakistan underwrite most of the country’s polio vaccination campaign costs and a $3 million grant to Afghanistan.

These contributions underscore the confidence that donors have in the leadership of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria to follow through with the very public commitments they made at the United Nations today.  Still more is needed if we are to close the funding gap and get rid of polio once and for all.