In the fight against polio, what we need to cross the finish line


Prime Minister Paul Martin smiles at the podium prior to a televised debate in Montreal on January 9, 2006. Martin is a Polio survivor and is calling for a universal commitment to eradicate the disease.


David Boily

Paul Martin was the 21st Prime Minister of Canada.

Last Wednesday marked World Polio Day, an opportunity for the global community to reflect on where we stand against polio. We have much to be proud of. Today, we’re closer than ever to reaching the historic goal of polio eradication – but there’s still more work to be done.

Like my father before me I contracted polio when I was very young. I was lucky enough to fully recover, but I will never forget the polio ward and my fear as I slowly became aware of what could happen to those of us who found ourselves there.

In 1988, when the polio eradication movement truly came together with the founding of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there were 350,000 cases in more than 125 countries every year. So far this year, we’ve seen just 171 cases, and only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria have never stopped transmission. India, which was always thought to be the hardest place to eliminate polio, made an enormous political and financial investment in its program and hasn’t seen a case in almost two years.

I’m proud to say that Canada has been a leader in this fight. Since 2000, we have provided more than US$330 million to the eradication initiative. Our investment in the Polio Eradication Signature Project in 2009-2011 made Canada the largest international donor to the polio program in Afghanistan. Canada is home to incredible polio advocates like Ramesh Ferris, an Indian-born polio survivor whose passion and tenacity inspire me. At the global level, the World Health Organization’s efforts are led by another remarkable Canadian, Dr. Bruce Aylward.

The credit for this progress, of course, goes far beyond Canada. We wouldn’t be where we are—99.95 percent of the way there—without the work of global partners like the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary International and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the frontline workers whose tireless efforts make all of this possible; and the countries that are making the political and financial commitments necessary to see the end of this disease.

More and more, we are seeing the world galvanize around this common agenda. In May, the World Health Assembly declared polio a “programmatic emergency.” With a renewed sense of urgency, leaders from the three endemic countries devised and are now implementing emergency action plans to improve vaccination campaign quality holding polio programs accountable at every level.

Last month at the UN General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a group of global leaders, including heads of state from the three endemic countries, renewed their commitment to eliminate polio. Canada announced that it will provide funds to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at a ratio of $1 for every $1 raised by Rotarians in Canada, up to a maximum of $1 million.

As a polio survivor, I’m proud to see the global community come together to end the disease forever. But our work is not finished. A funding gap threatens our ability to sustain our efforts until the job is done. Twenty four countries have already seen their immunization programs cut back in 2012 because of the lack of funds. Unless these efforts are fully funded, polio could resurge and threaten children in countries that are now polio-free.

We need a universal commitment, from both donor and endemic country governments, to provide the political will and the financial resources to cross the finish line on polio eradication. As global leaders, it is our collective responsibility to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to eradicate polio once and for all.