The year 2012 has seen unprecedented progress in the war against polio, as well as the emergence of a major challenge.
The year began as we counted down to January 13, the date India marked a full 12 months with no new polio cases – an incredible accomplishment given that many experts predicted this vast nation of 1.2 billion people would be the disease’s final stronghold. But the historic milestone ultimately was reached through the unwavering commitment of the Indian government at every level and the dedication of many thousands of health workers and volunteers – including India’s Rotary club members – who were determined to reach every child with the oral polio vaccine.
This set the stage for India’s removal from the list of polio endemic countries in February, leaving only Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan as nations where transmission of the wild poliovirus has never been stopped. As we enter 2013, it is imperative that we focus our efforts on stopping polio in the endemic countries to prevent the ‘importation’ of cases into polio-free countries – the key to achieving total eradication.
Globally, new polio cases are at an all-time low. As of mid-November, only 187 cases had been reported worldwide, all but five confined to the endemic countries. In contrast, we had 520 cases at the same point in 2011, and more than half of those were imported cases in non-endemic countries. When Rotary International began the fight to end polio more than 25 years ago, the disease crippled about 350,000 children a year in more than 120 countries.
The case numbers confirm that the time has never been better to press the fight to end polio once and for all – to achieve history by making polio the first human disease to be eradicated since smallpox was vanquished in 1979.
But another set of numbers – numbers with dollar signs attached – presents perhaps our most formidable challenge ever in the form of a $700 million funding gap that could derail the entire program unless it is addressed quickly. If this gap is not bridged, polio could easily stage a resurgence that could paralyze millions of children in a matter of years, wasting the world’s $8 billion investment in polio eradication to date (nearly $1.2 billion of it from Rotary) and squandering the estimated $40-$50 billion in economic savings and benefits that eradication would generate.
The funding gap must be bridged, and Rotary and its partners are working tirelessly to convince world leaders to commit the resources needed to immunize every child against polio. India has proven it can be done, and now we must build off the momentum gained in 2012 if we are to finally achieve our goal of a polio-free world. Failure is not an option.