The US Government Must Continue to Lead Efforts to End Polio

In the past 27 years, the global community has made enormous progress toward seeing a world without polio. Today, on World Polio Day, we celebrate that fewer children than ever before must live with the scourge of this disease.

Congresswoman Kay Granger, Chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, explained that the 2016 bill, "prioritizes these efforts and reinforces this subcommittee's commitment to eradicating polio, saving the lives of children, and continuing treatment for those living with HIV." Senator Richard Durbin, a member of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee explained that, "We are closer than ever to ending the scourge of polio and I commend the work of Rotary and many others in advancing that goal."

In the early 20th century, polio was regarded as one of the most feared diseases in industrialized countries. Each year hundreds of thousands of children were paralyzed from the disease. In 1948, Dr. Jonas Salk began working on vaccine to combat polio. After seven years of work and extensive field trials, the news of the vaccine was made public in 1955. Salk was hailed by some as a "miracle worker" and an immediate rush to vaccinate began. Salk campaigned for mandatory vaccination claiming that public health should be considered a "moral commitment." When asked who owned the patent to the vaccine, Salk said, "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

In 1988, key leaders joined together at the World Health Assembly to form the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) and to work toward the full eradication of polio. Their objective was ambitious. At that point, polio was endemic in 125 countries and more than 350,000 people, primarily young children, were affected by polio each year.

The GPEI is one of the largest, most successful, public-private health initiatives ever undertaken. Through the support of the GPEI, more than two and a half billion children have been immunized, 13 million kids have been spared disability, and over 250,000 deaths from polio have been averted. Eradication efforts have led to more than a 99% decrease in cases since the launch of the GPEI in 1988.

This remarkable progress would not have been possible without the support of the United States Government and other important donor countries. The United States is one of the largest donor government contributors to the GPEI and also lends technical expertise through the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a founding partner of GPEI. The United States Government contributed $205m to polio eradication efforts in FY14 and $217.7m to efforts in FY15. The leadership of the Appropriations Committees in the House of Representatives and in the Senate have been particularly supportive of polio eradication efforts. The United States does not stand alone in the effort to see the end of polio. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International have each contributed over $1 billion to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Today, the world is in a stronger position than ever before to end polio. Earlier this year, Nigeria marked one year since their last reported polio case caused by the wild polio virus, the longest the country has ever gone without a case of polio. In addition, August 11, 2015 marked one year without a case of wild poliovirus on the entire African continent for the first time in history. On September 30, Afghanistan became the final polio-endemic country to introduce the inactivated polio vaccine as part of the biggest globally synchronized vaccine introduction in history. Together, we stand on the verge of eradicating a human disease for the second time in history.

With less than 1% of polio cases remaining, it is absolutely critical that the United States Government continues investing in polio eradication efforts. Our government's investment in polio eradication is the only way to yield the ultimate return: future generations of children free from this devastating disease.

Polio eradication is a cost-effective public health investment. Experts estimate that fully eradicating polio would achieve an estimated savings of $50 billion over the next 20 years. Protecting children in Afghanistan and Pakistan from polio helps to increase the odds that children will be able to go to school and contribute to their families and their communities. Ensuring that polio is fully eradicated around the world will also help protect the polio-free status long taken for granted here in the United States and in more than 80% of the world.

Investments in polio eradication are helping improve routine immunization systems and creating experience and knowledge that can support other health priorities. Polio staff are an important resource for immunization, surveillance and other programs in low-income countries. GPEI personnel and infrastructure can serve, and in many places are serving, as the vehicle for distributing other health interventions and as the foundation for disease surveillance. For example, polio workers and GPEI infrastructure played a key role in responding to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa through surveillance, contact tracing, planning, training and health communications.

Hard-to-reach populations, poor infrastructure, conflict, and political instability remain as barriers to finally eradicating the disease. Eradication cannot be taken for granted - as we have seen through previous setbacks, seeing the end of polio forever will require every country to play a key role. Now is the time for the United States, and other key donors, to continue their tremendous support for polio eradication efforts and consider increases as necessary to eradicate this disease once and for all.