Delivering life-saving vaccines to every child: Polio can pave the way

We know how successful outcomes can be when we coordinate our efforts and resources. Worldwide commitment has seen smallpox eliminated. After more than ten thousand years of blinding, disfiguring and killing humans, in 1979 the highly infectious disease was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization.

Now the eradication of polio is also within our reach. Polio cases have decreased by more than 99% since 1988. Two years ago, India – long regarded as the most difficult place in the world to end polio - was declared polio-free. Last year only five countries recorded cases of polio worldwide.

Australia has shown strong leadership in this push to end polio. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in late 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard led a call for much needed financial resources, pledging AU$50 million towards ending polio once and for all.

This incredible opportunity is being coordinated by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), which is synchronising efforts to reach even the most remote and at risk. If one child remains vulnerable to polio, our efforts have not succeeded. 

There is no cure for polio. All of the gains we have made in eradicating polio are due to vaccines. By vaccinating each and every child, even those living in poverty and the most hard to reach places, we will soon see a world free of this disabling disease. 

This week is host to the Global Vaccines Summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where a 2013-2018 Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategy will be released. The strategy has been endorsed by hundreds of scientists across the globe.

In attendance is the Young Australian of the Year award winner, Akram Azimi, who is travelling with the Global Poverty Project as part of their End of Polio campaign. Akram has been a strong voice for polio eradication in Australia and beyond, drawing on his experiences of receiving a polio vaccine as a child in Afghanistan, and having lived in Pakistan, two of the final frontiers of the battle to end polio.

Acknowledging the life-saving effect of Australian foreign aid, Akram has also highlighted the importance of equitable access to vaccines for all people. At the acceptance of his Young Australian of the Year award, Mr Azimi stressed his belief “that every child deserves the right to a healthy life, whoever they are and wherever they were born – whether in Perth, the heart of the Kimberly or Afghanistan”.

While we are close to defeating polio, more than a million children still die each year from other vaccine-preventable illnesses, and these deaths are disproportionately high in developing countries.  We have vaccines for diseases such as rotavirus, pneumococcal and hepatitis B. We may soon also have vaccines for malaria and TB. But we still aren’t reaching millions of children each year.

Given the role that poverty plays in increasing vulnerability to infection and illness, the same children that miss out on access to vaccines are often those that are most in need of the protection. Through striving for equitable access to vaccines for all we have a real opportunity to turn the tide of the growing disparity between rich and poor.

The significance of eradicating polio should not be underestimated. With strong political will, public engagement and financing, the end of polio could be just a first step towards protecting every last child from preventable disease. This is an opportunity that must not be lost and we all have a part to play: governments, private companies, communities, individuals.

Australia showed great leadership at CHOGM through their commitment towards ending polio, but there is still much to be done. Australia will announce its federal budget on 14 May. This is an incredible opportunity for the country to show continuing leadership in the fight against global poverty, disease and inequity. A strong declaration for foreign aid, in line with the commitment of a growing aid budget, 0.37% Gross National Income (GNI) pledged towards Overseas Development Assistance, on track to reach 0.5% GNI by 2016/17, would be a clear signal that Australia can be counted on to go that last, and critically important, mile.