Opinion: We can achieve world without polio

Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

Atlanta has long been a hub for action on global health issues, and during the upcoming Rotary International Convention, our city has the chance to step up once again as global leaders and Rotary members gather here to support ending polio once and for all.

Polio is a devastating disease, and Rotary International has been a leader in helping stop it. As a Rotary member and founder of the United Nations Foundation, protecting kids from polio is a cause near to my heart, and I’m proud of the many Rotarians who have given their time, talent, and resources to vaccinate children and fight this disease. They are an example of how each of us can make a difference in the world.

As a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), Rotary International works along with United Nations agencies (the World Health Organization and UNICEF), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to rid the world of this terrible disease. The initiative coordinates the international effort, working with national governments, health workers, volunteers, and other partners, including the UN Foundation.

GPEI has been a driving force for progress: Since it was launched, polio cases have declined by more than 99.9 percent, from an estimated 350,000 cases of polio per year in the late 1980s to just 37 reported cases of wild polio virus last year. According to the World Health Organization, that means more than 16 million people – mostly children – have avoided paralysis and can walk today.

Although we are on the verge of eradication, polio continues to circulate in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Health workers and volunteers are operating in some of the most difficult and complex areas of the world, and getting to the magic number – zero cases – remains a tough task.

But we can’t let that scare us or become an excuse to back off. In fact, it’s why we need to renew our efforts now – when we’re so close. The simple fact is: The presence of polio anywhere is a threat everywhere since this disease doesn’t recognize borders. If we don’t finish the job, the World Health Organization warns that we could see a resurgence of polio cases around the world.

The good news is there is a strong global coalition determined to end polio in the three endemic countries. When I visited Nigeria in 2010, I met with several government, religious, and civil society leaders. Their commitment to stopping polio was clear.

While Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are making progress, they can’t let up on their domestic efforts to fight the disease. But they need continued support and resources from the international community to keep the momentum going. An estimated $1.5 billion is needed from donors. To put that in perspective, Americans spend twice as much – around $3 billion – on Halloween costumes.

Leadership from the United States government has been essential to the fight against polio, as well as to many global health issues. To keep children around the world – and in the U.S. – safe and healthy, this leadership must continue.

We have the tools and ability to stop polio; now we need to maintain the commitment to reach the finish line. The Rotary International Convention is an important moment for leaders from around the world and across sectors to renew their support for this achievable goal.

In addition to the millions of lives that have and will be saved, polio eradication will save money for overstretched health systems. The net benefit of polio eradication alone is estimated to be $20 billion to $25 billion over the next 20 years. It will also allow countries and the global community to leverage the infrastructure that has been built for polio eradication to strengthen a wide variety of other health efforts around the world.

Given the stakes, we can’t sit on the sidelines. We have it in our power to ensure that future generations will live in a polio-free world. Working together, I know we can finish the job on polio. We can and must ensure that polio follows smallpox as the second human disease in history to be eradicated from our planet.

Ted Turner, founder of CNN, is the Founder and Chairman of the United Nations Foundation.