On World Polio Day, calls for Australia to boost funding

A child receives polio vaccination at an immunization clinic in Pokhara, Nepal. Photo by: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

World Polio Day 2016 is often an opportunity to highlight the successes of global eradication programs and plan for the coming year. But in Australia, the occasion instead sparked concern over how a shrinking foreign aid budget will have an impact on eradication.

Cuts to Australia’s aid program will see funding to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative fall dramatically, from 15 million Australian dollars ($11.5 million) to AU$3 million in 2017.

Advocates gathering at a World Polio Day breakfast at Parliament House on Oct 19, hosted by Global Citizen, RESULTS Australia, UNICEF and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, made their case to maintain funding levels.

Just 30 new cases of polio have been reported for the year to date, and the number of children not vaccinated is falling. Still, unexpected outbreaks, such as those in Syria in 2013 and recently in Nigeria, point to the importance of ongoing efforts and vigilance.

Australia’s planned cuts

The cuts will directly impact programs designed to wipe out polio in countries still struggling to eradicate it, including Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Australia’s funding wasn’t the largest, but it played an important role in plugging the gaps in eradication programs, Michael Sheldrick, head of global policy and advocacy for Global Citizen, told Devex.

“Australian support in the past has been flexible,” he said. “While some countries tie their contributions to particular countries or regions, Australia has allowed their contributions to go to areas of greatest need in the fight against polio.”

With unexpected polio outbreaks often occurring, Sheldrick said Australia’s flexible funding was particularly important.

A strong case for Parliament to back down

Australia has contributed more than $100 million to polio eradication since 2011. Global programs now face a $1.5 billion funding gap to meet its goal of eradicating polio within two years.

“There is the sense, amongst the international community, that Australia should be doing their fair share,” Sheldrick said. “The U.K. recently announced increased funding to support polio which was meant to help plug the overall funding gap. Now they believe they are instead making up for Australia’s shortfall.”

Canadian polio survivor and global advocate Ramesh Ferris urged parliamentarians to maintain the previous funding levels. Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja, RESULTS board chair Chris Franks and member of Rotary International Board of Directors Noel Trevaskis also emphasized Australia’s long history of support for polio and pointed out that eradication is within sight.

Key Australian political figures supporting the event included Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science Greg Hunt, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh and Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury Matt Thistlethwaite, who are influencers on both sides of politics. 

Hunt, who spoke on behalf of the Australian government, said the government was committed to the fight, despite the funding changes.

A face for polio

Ferris used his first visit to Australia to ensure high level decision-makers understand the human impact any cut to polio funding will have.

Born in India, Ferris contracted polio at the 6 months of age and his legs were paralyzed for life. At the age of 1, his mother put him in an orphanage in the hope for a better life. He was adopted by the the Anglican Bishop of Yukon and his family in 1982 and lived a new life, with medical support, in Canada.

Returning to India in 2002, Ferris saw what his life could have been like. And he was determined to be an advocate to fight polio and support survivors.

“The response from audiences is often an inspiration for others to accept the call to action, not waiver in their continued support to end polio, raise awareness and pledging funds to help end polio,” he told Devex.

Following the breakfast, Ferris spoke directly with Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten. He also visited key policymakers and staff within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to stress the importance of continued funding for polio eradication. He said his story was received positively.

“If that funding does not continue, it will all be for nothing and polio will come back stronger than ever,” he said.

Make or break time for eradication and the SDGs

The success or failure of polio eradication will impact more than just the 10 million children predicted by the World Health Organization to be paralyzed by polio over the next 40 years, breakfast organizers said. It will have wider impacts on development as a whole.

“The tagline of the Sustainable Development Goals is to leave no one behind,” Sheldrick told Devex. “If we can’t eradicate polio, if we can’t reach children in the most marginalised communities with the most basic of interventions that is a vaccine, how can we possibly focus on more sophisticated forms of healthcare? It is a litmus test for the SDGs as a whole.”

For more Devex coverage on global health, visit Focus On: Global Health 

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.