Saying a decisive moment has arrived in the quest to eradicate polio, world leaders vowed Thursday to embrace a new approach that includes long-term funding commitments, greater accountability and a specific focus on the three countries where the crippling disease remains endemic.
Spurred by philanthropist Bill Gates, luminaries gathered at the United Nations in New York to give their public backing to a six-year Global Polio Eradication Initiative that calls for the injection of an additional $1-billion (U.S.) a year and a more business-like approach to the vaccination campaign, including a switch from oral polio vaccine to a more effective injectable version.
“Getting polio done is one of the smartest allocations of resources the world can make,” Mr. Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told the gathering.
He also put his money where his mouth is: The foundation has invested more than $1-billion in polio eradication and will spend another $1-billion or more to finish the job.
“We’re doing that because there’s a real chance of success,” Mr. Gates said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper opted not to attend the high-profile event at the UN even though Canada has been a key donor. It was the first country to make a donation when the polio eradication project was launched in 1988 and has contributed $387-million since then.
Canada was represented at Thursday’s meeting by Julian Fantino, Minister of International Co-operation. He announced a modest plan to match funds raised by Rotary International in Canada up to $1-million, while other countries like the U.S., Britain and Australia made far more significant long-term pledges.
Others made much more significant commitments, most notably the Islamic Development Bank, which pledged $227-million but also promised to assist on the ground.
When worldwide eradication efforts began 24 years ago, some 350,000 people annually contracted polio, most of them children, and millions were living with disabilities as a result. The goal was to eliminate “the Great Crippler” by the year 2000.
That goal was pushed back repeatedly as the disease clung stubbornly in some countries. Last year there were 650 cases, including 351 in the endemic countries Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan and 309 cases in the rest of the world. So far in 2012 there have been only 150 cases.