Opinion: Don't fall at the finish line in the race to eradicate polio
A young girl receives a polio vaccine at a Kabul, Afghanistan, hospital in September 2011.
May 30th, 2012
05:26 PM ET

Opinion: Don't fall at the finish line in the race to eradicate polio

Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate is Minister of State for Health in Nigeria. Dr. Christopher Elias is president of Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Pate and Elias.

By Drs. Muhammad Ali Pate and Christopher Elias

The two of us are roughly the same age but we grew up in very different parts of the world. One of us had the luxury of never giving polio a second thought. The other saw his best friend paralyzed by the disease and, some years later, killed by a car as he struggled to cross the street.

It’s a tragic story of the inequities that separate rich countries like the United States from developing countries such as Nigeria. But it's also a hopeful story as progress on polio eradication is made.

In less than a quarter century, the number of children paralyzed by polio has dropped spectacularly — from 350,000 cases annually to just 650 last year. In 1988, there were 125 countries where polio was endemic. Today, there are just three - Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, India was removed from the list of polio-endemic countries. Just two years ago, India — a subcontinent with a population of more than 1 billion — was thought to be the last place on earth where polio would be eliminated.

India’s success proves that polio is a disease that can be defeated in the most challenging circumstances, and for the most part has been. But finishing the job in a remaining few pockets in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan will take a stronger commitment.

We are at a critical moment in the effort to create a polio-free world: Anything short of complete eradication means we give up on the promise of providing all children, no matter where they live, the benefit of living a life free of this debilitating disease. It also means every year tens of thousands of children — not just in the currently endemic countries but also children in countries that have been polio-free for years — run the risk of getting paralyzed from polio.

The reality is that until the remaining three endemic countries eradicate polio, the virus could make a comeback anywhere. As recent outbreaks in China and Tajikistan have shown, polio knows no borders.

We learned from India’s experience that stopping polio transmission requires a strong commitment by political and community leaders, well-managed and high-quality vaccination programs tailor-made to local circumstances, and adequate financial resources.

The three countries where polio is still endemic are applying these lessons. At the highest levels of government, there is a deep and unwavering commitment. To address unique local conditions, Afghanistan and Pakistan have established permanent polio teams to serve provinces where security conditions have made it difficult for volunteer teams to reach children with vaccines. In Nigeria, satellite technology is being used to help ensure every community is reached.

We need to do all we can to support these kinds of efforts and ensure that leaders at all levels are accountable for getting the job done.

Follow-through of another kind is just as important. The global partnership that has worked so successfully to eradicate polio is nearly $1 billion short of the funds necessary to fully implement the campaign through 2013. Already, the funding shortage has forced cancellation or scaling back of essential vaccination activities in 24 high-risk countries.

This is where governments and other donors can make a key difference — continuing to support the level of funding necessary to sustain the eradication effort. The lagging economy is putting extra pressure on donors, but inaction will not only lead to terrible human suffering; it will also carry a far greater economic price tag than continuing to invest now.

In fact, a successful eradication effort will result in benefits of up to $50 billion by 2035 in the world’s poorest countries, according to world health groups. The world’s investment in polio eradication is also paying dividends by laying the foundation for delivery of other cost-effective health services—including vaccines for other preventable diseases.

Last week, health ministers representing nearly 200 countries underscored their strong belief in the effectiveness of vaccines and their importance of protecting all the world’s children by passing two resolutions. One declared polio eradication a worldwide health emergency. The other endorsed a global plan to ensure that all children — not just those in wealthy countries — have access to vaccines that prevent diseases.

As public health practitioners and as parents, we believe that every child, no matter whether they were born in a U.S. hospital or a hut in Nigeria, deserve to be protected from this preventable disease. And we believe that because eradicating polio is something that benefits us all, we all share in the responsibility to make that happen.

soundoff (132 Responses)


    June 3, 2012 at 3:27 am | Reply
  2. JR

    I think that the hardest thing to combat when it comes to vaccination programs in third world countries are the superstions surrounding them. It's less about opportunity and monies, and more about ignorant belief systems and irrational fears. But then again, that is true about so many other topics, too.

    Good luck with Pakistan and Afghanistan. They don't even recognize females as human. Even if you could successfully argue the science behind vaccination, how are you going to argue that females should be protected when they'll kill them at a moment's notice for things that are far more minor in scope? You know, like daring to want to know the alphabet?

    June 3, 2012 at 8:56 am | Reply
  3. Dott

    Yes it may if we don't stop the influx of illegals who sneak in without proper paperwork. You know a shot register showing they have been vacinated against diseases already irricated in this nation. Bed Bugs are an example of what is being brought in across our border. Time for stopping it? Who will listen?

    June 3, 2012 at 10:52 am | Reply
  4. Fiona

    The boy in the orange tee shirt in that photo has the hallmarks of a fetal alcohol syndrome child...in a country where alcohol is verboten?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
    • Larry

      Wow – your diagnostic skill beats the snot out of Gregory House, MD. You should have your own TV show where you can just look at someone and heal them!


      June 4, 2012 at 8:25 am | Reply
  5. Tom

    Funny how a country that has nuclear weapons , Pakistan, is on the list. . . .

    June 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  6. Arcangelw7

    Pat, I want to know why you are not at the Bilderberg Meeting or even reporting on it? Why as a Christian, are you not standing up to this evil in this world with Prayers & Leadership, shining Gods light on their Darkness being executed in secret right now as the Global Agenda?

    You should be rallying people peacefully to be there with the protesters and leading them in prayers for this world and Country, and binding up the Principalities and Powers of Darkness as they discuss our demise right in your own backyard. Why is there not even a whisper of this event coming from CNN and who do you really stand up for, the Globalists or God? Shame on you!

    June 3, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  7. Rhonda

    I am a 62 year old who got polio back in 1952. I just want to say how grateful I am to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for pouring tens of millions of dollars into the WHO to help eradicate polio. We are almost there!

    June 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  8. Larry

    Polio – along with mumps, measles, rubella, pertussis, and even tetanus – will continue to make a comeback in the US as long as there are those idiots who are either too lazy to get their kids vaccinated using the "It's against our beliefs" argument, or are stupid enough to blindly follow the now completely disproven myth that vaccines and autism are linked. Don't think parents use the "beliefs" argument? Check with any school nurse. They can give you numbers on how many parents who simply don't want to take the time or spend the money to get their kids vaccinated, so they simply send a note – which they often have to have the kid write! – telling the nurse that "We do not believe in having our children vaccinated."

    And of course, which kids usually end up with some easily preventable disease? You guessed it.

    June 4, 2012 at 8:24 am | Reply
  9. Andrew

    Why do articles like this have to start off with a frickin' guilt trip about rich countries having better vaccination rates than poorer countries? Would it be better if rich countries didn't vaccinate so that it would be 'fair'? And let's remember that the polio vaccine was developed BY a rich country.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:43 am | Reply
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