World Polio Day this year sees us closer than ever to eradicating Polio - we must ensure the UK government plays its part, writes Sam Bacon.
It may surprise you to learn that Wednesday was World Polio day, and despite being a disease we in the UK don’t often think or talk about all that much, after 30 years of hard work we are at a crucial point in history.
For the first time, we stand on the brink of finally eradicating this terrible disease. However, to get there we need to continue the momentum and ensure our government and others aren’t complacent in the fight to end polio for good.
Polio is an infectious disease that invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis and even death. There is no cure, only treatment to alleviate the symptoms, and while the disease can hit anyone at any time it mainly attacks children aged 5 and under.
However, despite having no cure, this is a disease we can prevent through vaccinations which cost less than 25p per dose. That’s an incredibly small price to pay to prevent a child from experiencing a lifetime of disability or death.
The threat of Polio may seem like a distant memory for people in the UK; thanks to comprehensive vaccination it’s been decades since it caused fear and panic in communities across Britain. In fact, thanks to the vision of Rotary International, who were the first group to imagine a world without polio, in the last 30 years we’ve reduced cases by 99%.
The fact is this disease is preventable, and the progress we’ve made means it is close to being only the second disease in human history to be eradicated. This is an amazing example of just what can be done with the money we spend on international development and a huge encouragement to keep going and finish the job.
Unfortunately, though, for the children and families living in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, Polio remains endemic in these countries despite incredible progress globally.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the body that coordinates efforts to end polio, has a realistic and deliverable strategy to eradicate it from these countries but it is currently facing a global funding shortfall of around $700 million.
This year the UK government’s multi-year financial commitment to GPEI expires. The World Health Organization has been clear the UK’s funding is absolutely critical to the campaign as we are the only donor country that allows our funding to be spent wherever it will be most effective. This allows GPEI to leverage more funding from other countries and ultimately vaccinate more children.
The UK’s funding has been particularly effective through ‘match funding’, where it has asked people to fundraise for the end of polio and matched what they’ve raised up to a certain limit. This scheme has raised $200 million in new donations in the past two years. We at the Global Poverty Project believe increasing the size of this pot in future years would be a fantastic route to increasing support beyond simply governments for this campaign.
The vision for ending Polio isn’t fanciful; it can be a reality within the foreseeable future, but it is crucial this government makes the financial and political commitment to do so.
In February this year Polio was officially eradicated from India, which was always seen as the technically hardest place to wipe the disease out, so we know the eradication of the last 1% of cases can be done.
For many years the UK has been a leading light in the campaign to eradicate Polio but our history on the issue counts for nothing unless we continue our funding at this critical time. The new Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening MP, has announced the government will be vaccinating an extra 29 million children against Polio in 2012, which is clearly fantastic news.
Similarly, Minister of State Alan Duncan’s statement at the UN high level event on polio on September 27th committing the UK in principle to support the campaign is very welcome. However, at the moment not even the date of an announcement continuing our financial support has been made public, let alone any indication of how much it could be.
Momentum is building for this campaign; earlier this week in celebration of the progress made on eradicating polio, we at the Global Poverty Project held an event in Parliament. There were Yasmin Quershi MP and the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Global Health, along with representatives from the embassies of each endemic country.
It marked the first time these groups have come together to celebrate the fantastic work achieved and highlighted the commitments that still need to be made towards the eradication of Polio in these three countries.
This was a great moment to come together but to see a world free of polio we need to ensure the government follows through on its laudable words and makes a new and greater commitment to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative both politically and financially this year.
We are so close to being rid of Polio for the first time – we can be the generation that ends it. So please, join us in our efforts to ensure the government plays its part, and help us deliver a future free from Polio forever.
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