Two Years’ Later – Now or never: on the edge of polio eradication

On 27 March 2014, the World Health Organization certified that the entire South East Asia Region was Polio free. This was a huge milestone, meaning that four out of the six WHO regions are now formally Polio free, and that every country within the region (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka,  Thailand and Timor-Leste) are Polio free.

We are so close to the end of Polio, however new threats loom, with reemergence of the disease in Syria as a result of internal violent conflict. Children are those devastated by Polio. Below is piece published in May 2012, two years ago, and now, more than ever, we should work to finish this momentous task.

The piece below was originally published on ABC’s The Drum.

At some point in recent history, Australians forgot about the iron lung; the full-body metal chamber, changing air pressure so that polio sufferers could simply breathe in, and out.

We forgot about the Australian children who were left paralysed or whose legs were permanently deformed.

At some point, we lost our deep, dark fear of polio. Forgetting, thankfully, was perhaps as a result of an incredible medical advancement; when Australian Dr Percival Bazeley CBE, working with Dr Jonas Salk, developed, and then pioneered the Australian delivery of the Salk polio vaccine.

This remarkable moment in medical science is at the centre of events this week at the 65th World Health Assembly of the United Nations World Health Organization; the world’s highest-level health policy forum. Ministers of Health, national delegations, and leading international health experts and advocates converge on Geneva, Switzerland to meet and discuss the world’s most pressing health issues, such as pandemic influenza.

On Friday, Geneva time, I watched the World Health Assembly, composed of 194 countries, declare polio a global health emergency and that vaccinating children across the world is an immediate international health priority.

Although we have come incredibly close to the complete global eradication of polio, a sudden escalation of cases has demonstrated the vital importance of consistent, community-wide vaccination. According to the World Health Organization, we are facing a “now or never” moment to permanently eradicate polio globally.

Vaccination is the solution. Since the introduction of a coordinated global vaccination effort 20 years ago, led by the World Health Organization and Rotary International, the number of polio cases worldwide has dropped 99 per cent. No longer are millions of lives around the world lost to polio, and no longer are nearly 1,000 children permanently paralysed every day.

For doctors, scientists and health human rights experts the possibility of global polio eradication is both exciting and inspiring. For those living in endemic polio areas, and for the 200,000 children who are predicted to otherwise be crippled by polio, this is simply life.

The dangers of failure to vaccinate are too great; not only for individuals, but for communities, and as has been seen in this case, the entire globe. Consistent vaccination is absolutely essential. Contrary to the cries of anti-vaccination lobby groups, failure to vaccinate is not only scientifically and medically unfounded selfishness, but dangerous. Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council of Foreign Relations, has not only expressed that “[w]e’re so close on polio eradication that it hurts”, but that the rise of anti-vaccination movements are causing the “export” of vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio, to developing countries where ready access vaccinations is sparse.

As a result, in addressing its international legal and moral responsibilities in this global health emergency, it is essential that Australia takes steps to continue to ensure that parents are provided with education on the medical and scientific facts of vaccination. Maintaining and ensuring consistent, community-wide vaccination, even here in Australia, is the only way global eradication of polio will become a reality; ensuring the health and human rights of millions around the world.

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, last week warned that:

“Wild viruses and wildfires have two things in common. If neglected, they can spread out of control. If handled properly, they can be stamped out for good. Today, the flame of polio is near extinction – but sparks in three countries threaten to ignite a global blaze. Now is the moment to act.”

Now is the world’s moment to act. Now is every Australian parent’s moment to ensure that their child is vaccinated against polio, and that the iron lung is relegated back to its rightful place in museum exhibits of the remarkable achievements of medical science.

Alexandra Phelan is an Australian international health and human rights lawyer, presently based in Geneva, Switzerland. View her full profile here.

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