Eradicating Polio: Let's Finish the Job

People around the world share an eternal hope for a better life. I see this wherever I travel -- whether it's to slums and villages in poor countries, or to high schools and community colleges in the United States. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shares this hope and is motivated by it.

The next five years offer a historic opportunity to have an impact on the health and welfare of people in the developing world. Even in the face of tough economic times across the globe, I am optimistic when I think about all that we can accomplish with our partners.

I think in terms of the next five years because 2015 will be a watershed moment. In 2000, the United Nations (UN) took the historic step of setting specific targets in eight areas of global health and development. It called them the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and it gave the world 15 years to meet them.

The MDGs set the clearest, most aggressive health and development agenda the world has ever had. In the decade since they were ratified, we have seen more progress than in any other 10-year period in history. The pressure is on us to try and achieve as many of these goals as possible over the next five years.

All of us should be watching closely two weeks from now. At that time, the UN will convene a special session to discuss how governments, foundations, and NGOs can work together to speed up that progress.

As the world rallies to meet the MDGs, we need to make sure people understand the value of vaccines in the equation. Vaccines are a miracle (not to mention an extremely high-return investment): with just a few doses, they protect a child for a lifetime.

While we often think of vaccines for immunizing against diseases like measles, polio should also be on our collective radar. Almost everyone has heard of polio, but many people don't know it still exists, and few understand the critical juncture we're at right now.

Since 1988, when the world set the goal of eliminating the disease forever, the number of polio cases has gone down by 99 percent. Just two decades ago, the disease was circulating in 125 countries. Now, there are only four countries that have yet to control transmission of the polio virus.

When we invest in polio eradication, we not only save lives, we also save money. In the United States alone, polio vaccination investments have prevented one million cases of polio and saved more than $180 billion.

Today, we have a narrow window of opportunity to eradicate polio, and in doing so prevent suffering, save billions of dollars, and demonstrate what is possible when the world comes together. Failure is unacceptable, because it will lead to an increase in the number of cases and a return of the virus into countries where it has been eliminated.

We have come so far, which is why I am surprised the world is short of the funding it needs to finish the job. Right now, there is not enough money past next summer to carry out all of the immunization activities to keep the world on track to eradicate polio. It's shocking, but in the last several years, funding from the G8 countries has actually gone down. This is a make-or-break time for polio eradication.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is a model partnership composed of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rotary International, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization (WHO). Its polio eradication campaign has a long record of success.

One of the main things the foundation is adding to the GPEI effort, in addition to our financial commitment, is our voice. We hope this will generate attention, and the funding and political commitment needed to finish the job.

The people I meet around the world share an eternal hope for a better life. It's time for all of us to join forces and wipe polio from the face of the earth.

Learn more about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's current efforts in its 2009 Annual Report.