Last week, nine women vaccinating children against polio were gunned down in northern Nigeria. The tragedy echoed all too closely the murders of nine female vaccinators in last December.
The attacks have spurred a very public and political conversation about polio. A recent letter to President Obama from presidents of public health universities condemned the CIA’s use of vaccinators in the search for Osama Bin Laden, saying the CIA’s actions “destroyed the trust” between vaccinators and communities. It's an important conversation -- we must ensure health care workers on the front lines of ending polio are protected, and it is certainly distressing that the Global Polio Eradication Initiative must budget for armored cars and other security measures.
But the politicization of polio is being accompanied by an actual waning of political will and funding support for its eradication at a critical time.
Over the past 30 years, there has been a near 99 percent reduction in polio cases, bringing us to the last 1 percent. Only Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan haven’t eliminated the disease, which used to paralyze over 400,000 children per year.
Eradicating the second human disease ever – smallpox was the first – is now within our grasp, yet finishing the last mile is proving difficult. As of October 2012, there was a funding gap of $US 700 million for polio eradication efforts in 2012 and 2013 alone.
As Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said, “Failure to eradicate polio is unforgiveable, forever. Failure is not an option. No single one of us can bring this long, hard drive over the last hurdle. But together we can.”But the courage of health workers – mainly women, as they can access mothers and children in particularly conservative communities – reinforces the need for our leaders to step up and fund polio eradication efforts, and to protect healthcare workers in the process. Millions have volunteered and risked their lives in the efforts to reach every child multiple times with the polio vaccine.
Chan’s emphasis on togetherness is an important one. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is currently finalizing a detailed plan that should allow us to finish the job of eradicating polio by 2018 – but it won’t work if our leaders don’t come together and prioritize the funding and support needed to carry it through.
If we allow this fight to be tied up in politics and waning financial commitment, children will suffer and the sacrifices made by courageous health care workers will be for naught.
For more information on ending polio: