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Polio: the fight till eradication

02 July 2010 -- Polio eradication is at a critical juncture. While the world is close to stamping out polio, this will require renewed commitment. Specifically it will entail renewed political, financial and scientific commitment.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You are listening to the WHO podcast and my name is Veronica Riemer. In this episode we look the final push to eradicate polio and the efforts to raise enough money to get the job done.

Polio eradication is at a critical juncture. Only four countries in the world remain polio-endemic: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. In Nigeria, case numbers have collapsed by more than 99% in the past year, from 312 cases to just three in 2010. In India, for the first time, the remaining endemic states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have not reported any wild poliovirus type 1 cases concurrently for more than six months. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Tajikistan, which had been polio-free since 1996, was reinfected with poliovirus from northern India in 2010. By mid June more than 200 children were paralysed. An event such as this signals the threat to a polio free world. Eradication success hinges on the enormous funds needed to finance the next steps of the global eradication initiative. WHO's Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan spoke at the launch of the new Strategic Plan for eradicating polio over the next two years.

Dr Margaret Chan: The international community has very few opportunities to improve this world in a permanent way. Polio eradication is one such opportunity. Ridding the world of the poliovirus will be a perpetual gift to every future generation of children.

Because of our success so far, the memory of polio as a horrible, crippling and killing disease has begun to fade. If we lose our resolve, let me emphasize, the full tragedy of this disease will quickly return to us, reminding us of what it means to let an opportunity slip away.

When the job is done, we will be able to stand before the next generation of children and say to them: Millions of you are walking today because of our resolve. We canvassed city streets and trudged up mountain tops. We manufactured vaccine. We drew up maps and analysed migration patterns. We released funds and paid the bills. We did what it took. So let’s do it. Let’s make history. Let’s deliver on our promise to every last child, a promise with a pay-back for every future generation of children.

Veronica Riemer: Mr Tony Lake is the new Executive Director of UNICEF which is one of the partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative with WHO, Rotary International and the U.S. Centers For Disease Control.

Mr Tony Lake: UNICEF has always been committed to eradicating polio. UNICEF is committed to eradicating polio. And if you’re wondering whether UNICEF will continue to be committed to eradicating polio, the answer is: absolutely yes! Every step of the way, until we reach every last child.

The progress that this initiative and the work of so many others has made possible is one of the greatest stories in medical history. In fact, I believe, it could be one of the great stories in human history. And now it all comes down to this, the final chapter. The final push in the fight to rid the world of a killer that has devastated millions of lives. We all have the truly historic opportunity, an historic duty, to write that final chapter together and eradicate polio forever.

Veronica Riemer: Ayuba Gufwan from Jos, Nigeria is a polio survivor, who contracted this crippling disease when he was four years old. Receiving a wheelchair at the age of 19 was a life changing experience. Until that time he could not walk, but only drag himself from place to place with his hands. Today he is running a company called Wheelchairs for Nigeria. He employs 21 people to make hand-powered wheelchairs out of bicycle parts for polio survivors. Each wheelchair requires about US$ 150 in donations to construct and over the past 10 years, he has given away more than 3 000 wheelchairs to children crippled by polio.

Ayuba Gufwan: We started reaching out to polio survivors making wheelchairs, donating to them free of charge, getting them to go to school. But, we discovered that it is much more important to prevent than to rehabilitate. We felt that for me just to keep quiet and concentrate only on reaching out to polio survivors would not yield the desired result.

Two tiny drops of polio vaccine can prevent a child from coming down with polio and that is why it is very, very important that all stakeholders should consolidate and sustain effort that have been stepped up over the years so that we can fight polio to a standstill. I want to appeal to the donor agencies not to develop any form of fatigue. We need to keep giving, and giving and giving so that the fight will be brought to a standstill.

Veronica Riemer: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been a major partner in developing the Strategic Plan. Bill Gates himself has visited India and Nigeria to look at how the Foundation could boost eradication efforts. Dr Tachi Yamada who is the President of the Global health programme at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation outlines the importance on implementing this plan.

Dr Tachi Yamada: Today we are locked in a mortal battle to finish the job of killing this dragon.

The polio eradication staff now constitutes the largest army of technical assistance in the world. Billions have been spent to eradicate this disease. We, the Foundation, in just a few short years have spent over US$ 850 million to fight this disease and we are making progress. We are this close to completing this task of beating down this dragon. How can we give up now? How can we tell our children or our children's children that we came this close and we walked away because we didn't have a few dollars?

Veronica Riemer: Dr Yamada has identified three fronts in the fight to eradicate polio.

Dr Tachi Yamada: The battle has got to be fought on three fronts. The first of course is a political one.

The second battle is a financial one, the gap is US$ 1.3 billion. There are several hundred people in the world who could write a personal cheque today to cover this gap. This is not a huge amount of money but it is going require a commitment from us. The Gates Foundation I promise you will stand up to this task, US$ 1.3 billion to eradicate the scourge of polio can't be too much money.

The third battle is a scientific one. We have to have continuing innovation to finish the job. We cannot win this battle without continuing investment in innovation. We live in a privileged world, most of us will live past 80. We will never suffer from polio and our children won't suffer from polio. It is inconceivable that there is a part of the world in which there is fear every day amongst parents that their children will contract polio. I don't think we can look at future generations in the face if we have come this close and we have walked away from this battle.

Veronica Riemer: You can read more about the Strategic Plan for Polio Eradication via the related links on the transcript page of this podcast. That's all for this episode. Thanks for listening. For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.

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