Rukhsar Khatoon, 4, is too young to fully grasp the significance of her life: that she is the final documented case of polio in a country of 1.2 billion people. She has become the greatest symbol of India’s valiant — and successful — effort to rid itself of a crippling and potentially deadly disease.
Her face has appeared in newspapers and on television. She’s been invited to national events by Rotary International, the organization that led the effort to rid India of polio. She is a literal poster child, an inspiration, a symbol of a feat that no doctor or health official thought possible even a few years ago. But this past Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially certified India as being polio-free.
This is great news that all Southeast Asia is certified polio-free by the World Health Organization — a momentous achievement for global public health and the worldwide effort to eradicate polio.
This extraordinary feat wasn’t easy. Most experts believed that India, with its high population density, poor health care services and regional accessibility problems, would remain the most polio-endemic region in the world.
Great achievements don’t just happen; they require the great efforts of many. The polio eradication movement, started in 1988, was a joint effort between the Indian government; WHO; Rotary International; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; UNICEF and various other NGOs; the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and about 2 million workers who vaccinated nearly 170 million throughout the country to finally wipe out the disease.
Truly, this worldwide effort should serve as a reminder that when the global community bands together to solve an issue, great things can be achieved. And today should serve as a call to not simply continue the efforts but to exponentially increase them.
Polio is more than 99% eliminated worldwide, and there are fewer cases than ever before. However, polio remains endemic in three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In 1988, 125 countries were fighting polio, and more than 350,000 children contracted the disease each year. Today, we have fewer than 200 cases.
This progress did not happen by accident. It happened because the global community launched an unprecedented effort called the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a partnership that includes the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
But the last percent is always the toughest, and if we don’t finish the job, polio could return with a vengeance. According to WHO, if we don’t end polio now, more than 10 million children under the age of 5 could be paralyzed by the disease in the next 40 years.
That’s why world leaders came together last month at the United Nations to reaffirm their commitment to ending polio and to issue an urgent call to fill a funding gap that threatens to undo the progress that has been made.
The last time Central Park’s Great Lawn hosted a Saturday night concert, the year was 1981, and the total raised was $100,000.
A recent Saturday marked the first show since, and the results were 60,000 souls watch a lineup including the Foo Fighters, Neil Young, The Black Keys, Band of Horses and K’naan–and became the largest syndicated charity concert in online and broadcast television history, generating over $500 million in pledges to combat poverty around the world.
In fairness to Simon and Garfunkel, the Global Festival’s pledge total relies on individual philanthropists, governments and NGOs to keep their word and contribute aid. But it’s a staggering sum nonetheless, one that’s nearly enough, says Evans, to eradicate polio once and for all (that would be music to the ears of Neil Young, who suffered from the disease as a child).
“It’s so close,” says Evans. “It literally could be the legacy of this generation to see that polio is wiped off the face of this planet, and that’s what we’re committed to.”
The Global Festival, deliberately scheduled to coincide with the United Nations’ General Assembly, should boost efforts that halved the global poverty rate from 1981-2005, from 52% to 25%–and give a jolt to the international body’s Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.
Nothing demonstrates human interconnectedness like the spread of infectious disease. Polio is endemic to just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. In recent years however, visitors have carried polio back to 39 previously polio-free states. Thus people everywhere have a stake in eradicating polio, as we have stamped out smallpox.
Immunizing the last unvaccinated children on the planet is an expensive and complex undertaking, and worth it in the long run. The world not only would be forever spared an incurable, crippling and often fatal disease. It would also save a lot of money. If polio transmission could be stopped by 2015, the net benefit from reduced treatment costs and productivity gains through 2035 would be $40 billion to $50 billion, according to a 2010 study.
Thanks to the efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative — which links national governments to the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Unicef, Rotary International and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — progress has been tremendous.
The coalition has adopted an emergency plan that prioritizes efforts in the three endemic countries. (Remarkably, India, which because of population density and poor sanitation was considered the greatest challenge, had zero new polio cases last year.) The idea is to stop the virus at the source and hope it doesn’t spread to places where vigilance has been lightened.