The year was 1932. Adolf Hitler was running for the presidency of Germany; the III Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. began; Senator Ted Kennedy was born in Boston; President Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka College in Illinois; Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR-a victim of polio himself at age thirty-nine) was elected to his first of three terms as president; and, in a small corner of Brooklyn, N.Y., a small five year-old boy contracted poliomyelitis or polio – a viral disease causing paralysis. This young boy, who would become my Dad, faced this challenge as courageously as he did everything in his life. I am extremely proud of him and all he accomplished.
It pleased my Dad to know that the scourge of polio has been eradicated in all but three nations of the world where the disease is still defined as endemic: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. This has been due specifically to the efforts of the United Nations and the tireless work of many of its loyal and dedicated employees. This is what the U.N. does: It recognizes a problem and develops solutions on how to solve it.
1988 Initiative Jumpstarted the Efforts to Combat This Disease
In 1988, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) joined forces to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in an effort to reduce the incidence of polio by fifty percent through assisting governments in immunizing children with the ultimate goal being a polio-free world. In recent times the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have joined the effort.
The success achieved through the GPEI is a result of the collaborative effort of public and private entities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations like the U.N.; these types of accomplishments do not happen without this kind of global health diplomacy.
The world has been reduced in size due to the advancements made in transportation. One can travel from point A to point B more quickly than in previous times. However, the drawbacks – as we recently saw with Ebola – is that disease neither recognizes nor respects borders. A single, infected individual traveling from a country declared a “hot zone” can transmit the disease and spread it quite rapidly; polio being no exception.
In its continued goal of getting to zero, GPEI launched what is known as National Immunization Days (NIDs); and, in recent years, it created the Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan whose overall goal is a “polio-free world by 2018.” There are several key factors involved with this plan that includes: “…stopping transmission, expanding focus to improve childhood immunization and protecting public health gains made to-date.”
By April 2013, governments and philanthropists committed $4 billion of the $5.5 billion that is needed for the Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan by 2018. A fully funded plan is required to continue the fight in those nations where polio is still deemed endemic.
UNICEF Official Presents Key Data on Polio
At the annual Members’ Day, the premier event on the calendar for the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA) which took place this past February at the U.N., Sherine Guirguis, Senior Communications Manager, Polio Eradication at UNICEF was one of several guests presenting on a panel titled, From the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals): The Future of Global Health.
Ms. Guirguis’ presentation was especially notable with respect to her discussion on polio as she had just returned from a trip to Pakistan, one of the three countries in the world where the battle rages against this disease.
Over sixty years ago, in the 1940s and 1950s, polio was one of the most feared and dangerous diseases known to man. Every year as the weather turned warmer public swimming pools and movie theaters would close as fear of the disease spread.
In the U.S., polio reached its peak in 1952 when the country saw 58,000 cases occurring in one year. Polio did not discriminate; it stretched across all socioeconomic classes. In 1955, a major breakthrough happened with the development of the oral polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk; this proved to be a significant milestone in finding a cure for polio.
By 1964, the number cases dropped dramatically from its high point of 58,000 to 121; however, it took another fifteen years to see the last case in 1979, according to Ms. Guirguis. As the UNICEF official pointed out, the hardest part is always getting to zero.
The cost of the vaccine is quite negligible: The price per drop is $0.15; the required amount is three drops per child – less than $0.50. Should any child be without this vaccine, especially given its effectiveness in preventing the transmission of this disease? Of course not. This was the first lesson that Ms. Guirguis wished to convey: Vaccines work!
Critics argue that billions of dollars are wasted in a disease that sees approximately 100 new cases per year; however, their arguments have no merit as the results speak for themselves.
The Senior Communications Manager for UNICEF transitioned to what she believed to be the reasons holding back nations where polio is still endemic. She cited several factors.
· States that are conflict-ridden.
· Poor health infrastructure.
· Political fragmentation.
· Violent extremism.
Each of these would certainly apply to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. This was the second lesson Ms. Guirguis wanted to bring across: Unless these issues can be resolved, one will not see a downward trend in new cases of polio transmission.
The final lesson was linked to her recent trip to Pakistan. She cited the fact that thirty percent of children in the country are malnourished. The health infrastructure is quite poor. Furthermore, what exacerbates this problem, is Pakistani parents refuse to have their children vaccinated. The U.N. health workers are specifically targeted when trying to do their job. This creates a very hostile environment and the bottom line is the children suffer the most.
A True Success Story
Nowhere has there been any greater success in eradicating polio than in the country of India. In an opinion piece written for The Wall Street Journal in November 2013, Bill Gates wrote the following: “…India’s accomplishment in eradicating polio is the most impressive global health success I’ve ever seen…In 1988, when there were approximately 350,000 new polio cases a year and the disease was crippling children in 125 countries, the World Assembly set the goal of eliminating polio world-wide…India’s success offers a script for winning some of the world’s most difficult battles in every area of human welfare. The key has been the participation of the humblest, most vulnerable members of the Indian population.”
As the U.N. and the world moves towards a goal of zero cases of polio, the success achieved in India may well be the model to emulate. This can and should be done.
Author’s note: This blog is dedicated to the memory of my Dad who passed away on April 21, 2015. He dealt with polio in his left arm his entire life, but it never swayed or detracted him from doing anything he was determined to do; and, it is for this reason, I will remain forever proud of him.