Malta is a nation that has long stood at civilisation’s crossroads. From the times of the Phoenicians, its strategic location has placed it firmly in the paths of travel, trade, culture and conquest.
For centuries, as civilisations rose and fell, Malta has occupied a place in history far out of proportion to its size. Geographically, Malta may be small but its role in determining our common future has always been an outsize one.
And Malta, more than most nations, harbours a deep awareness of how common our future truly is.
In a few short months, the course of history will again be charted in Malta, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on November 27-29.
This biennial meeting is an opportunity for Commonwealth leaders to discuss matters of pressing concern and for Commonwealth citizens to make their voices and priorities heard at the associated People’s Forum. Of the many issues to be discussed at CHOGM and this forum, one should sit firmly atop the agenda: the global eradication of polio.
In the 30 years since Rotary launched its global commitment to eradicate polio, more than 650,000 polio-related deaths and more than 13 million cases of polio-related paralysis have been averted through mass vaccination campaigns.
Last year, the world saw only 359 cases of wild polio, down from over 350,000 in 1988. In the first half of 2015, polio reached the lowest level ever recorded, with just 33 cases of wild poliovirus identified in only two countries.
This success has come as a result of the tremendous commitment led by Rotary, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organisation, Unicef, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the world’s national and local governments.
Altogether, more than $11 billion have been invested since 1985 to vaccinate more than 2.5 billion children.
The theme of the upcoming CHOGM summit is ‘Adding global value’. Few global efforts bring this theme to life as vividly as the effort to eradicate polio. The resources invested to combat this disease have indeed brought us within sight of our goal—and paid dividends in many other areas as well.
The healthcare cost savings attributable to the campaign to eradicate polio are estimated at up to $50 billion through the year 2035.
The net benefit of the entire polio eradication programme, such as the supplemental vitamins included with the oral vaccine, is estimated to have generated an additional $90 billion in savings and prevented an additional 5.4 million child deaths.
The healthcare infrastructure created to fight polio has equipped nations to handle new challenges, such as the Ebola outbreak in Africa, far more effectively, resulting in more rapid containment and control of the disease.
Of course, final eradication of polio will permit stressed healthcare systems to redirect scarce resources toward other pressing health concerns such as malaria, diarrhoeal illnesses and HIV/AIDS.
Malta may be small but its role in determining our common future has always been an outsize one
Today marks one year since the last case of wild poliovirus in Nigeria, the last polio-endemic country in Africa. Fragile though this progress is, we are optimistic that, with continued investment and effort, we will soon see only two remaining countries with endemic polio: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The net around polio has tightened to this one last reservoir of wild poliovirus and the ongoing efforts in the region are nothing short of heroic.
Surveillance officers meticulously comb neighbourhoods for children with signs of the disease; environmental monitoring teams constantly test sewage for signs of the virus; teams of health workers venture into the most difficult and dangerous of situations to reach children with drops of oral vaccine.
Despite civil unrest, ongoing insecurity and the threat of attack, commitment by government and health workers remains high and our support of them must remain high as well.
Polio eradication is so close – almost within sight. Yet, all the progress we have made could still easily be lost without the financial and political support that is so vitally necessary for eradication efforts to continue.
If the global campaign to eradicate polio were to cease now for lack of funds, it would take less than a decade for polio to return to pandemic levels, with up to 200,000 new cases of paralysis, in countries that have long been free of the disease, every single year.
Even a slowing of current efforts could prove catastrophic: a single exported case could easily lead to new outbreaks that would set eradication efforts back by months or years.
Twelve years ago, with global polio cases at historic lows, three Nigerian states elected to halt immunisation in response to unfounded safety concerns. This suspension of activity, in one relatively small area for a relatively short period of time, led to outbreaks that ultimately spread to 19 previously polio-free countries, costing over $370 million to contain.
This experience taught us, with brutal clarity, a lesson we ignore at our peril: that as long as polio exists anywhere, children everywhere are at risk.
At the 2011 CHOGM, Commonwealth member states committed to accelerate action and financial support to eradicate polio. Today, the world looks to Malta, and the member states of the Commonwealth, to maintain this commitment, with strong international support for full eradication of this disease.
The economic, humanitarian and ethical imperatives for eradication are clear. We cannot miss the chance we have before us, to ensure that 30 years of global investment pay their ultimate dividend: a world forever free of polio.
Ravi Ravindran is president of Rotary International.
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