Opinion: One of the greatest days of the human race is within reach, all we need is political will

A health worker vaccinates an infant during a polio vaccination program. Photo by: Sanofi Pasteur

Up until this month, it was my privilege to preside over the Commonwealth of Nations as its chair in office. During my tenure over the past two and a half years, I was fortunate enough to witness firsthand how the Commonwealth makes an invaluable contribution to the lives of so many.

Yet one cause, in particular, stood out as an inspiring example of the Commonwealth’s relevancy — the audacious push to eradicate the debilitating disease of polio, to make it the second human disease in history to ever be eradicated.

April’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was a welcome and timely reminder of the fact that we are 99.9 percent of the way toward eradicating polio. So far this year, only eight cases have been recorded.

Yet, just a few decades ago, it was a very different situation — more than 300,000 people, mostly children, contracted polio each year.

What makes polio heartbreaking is that the solution is so simple: Administer children with a vaccine that can be as cheap as $0.09 cents, protecting them from lifelong paralysis or death.

In 1988, we reached a major turning point in the fight against polio — the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which provided the funding needed to vaccinate children across the world. Polio infection rates immediately began to fall; however, cases have remained in hard-to-reach areas across Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 2016, Nigeria also returned to the endemic list after two years without a case. Presence of polio anywhere is a risk to all children everywhere. And we urgently need funding to protect children in high-risk areas to eradicate polio once and for all. So where will this funding come from?

At the last CHOGM, that I hosted in 2015, international advocacy organization Global Citizen, together with thousands of Rotarians, sent Commonwealth leaders 250,000 tweets, calls, and emails demanding the renewal of financial and political support to eradicate polio once and for all. The network of countries made a promise to renew funding for the effort, and they have delivered on this promise.

In response to Global Citizen and their partners, Commonwealth leaders have pledged more than $1 billion, set to affect over 434 million lives — $794 million of these funds have already been disbursed to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, according to a report published by Global Citizen in April. This means that more than 323 million children have been vaccinated so far thanks to Commonwealth countries and their taxpayers.

In the two years following the renewed promise, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Malta all made commitments totaling over $220 million — a significant sum that will ensure the vaccination of 140 million children over the next three years.

To zero in on the Commonwealth to tackle this issue was the right idea, as very few gatherings of global leaders actually bring together both donor and affected countries like the Commonwealth does.

As Prince Charles mentioned earlier this month during CHOGM, the eradication of polio clearly demonstrates how the Commonwealth is “uniquely placed to take on such pressing global challenges, for our shared values, history, and culture, provide us with a remarkable and potent platform for transformative action.”  

Such is the Commonwealth’s commitment to this disease that at CHOGM, leaders “emphasized their continued support” for the success of the program once and for all. After all, if eliminated, it will provide both the political will and the infrastructure to tackle other infectious diseases including malaria, and neglected tropical diseases such as trachoma, which causes eyelashes to turn inwards, leading to excruciating pain and irreversible blindness.

There are already Commonwealth‐driven movements focused on ending these horrific diseases. At Global Citizen Live at London’s Brixton Academy in April, I joined Ghana and Botswana in calling on the international community “to raise another $250 million a year by 2020” to tackle these ancient, preventable diseases.

Yet, it is polio that is most within reach. So far, only one disease has been eradicated by vaccination in human history: Smallpox. With determination and cooperation, we can reach every last child with a vaccine to ensure children everywhere are protected from the devastating effects of polio.

As I prepared to hand over leadership of this extraordinary association of nations, I urged Commonwealth leaders to commit the necessary political will and financial resources to eliminate polio once and for all. Our determination and unity in this endeavor will truly show why the Commonwealth is still a relevant and effective institution.

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About the author

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    Joseph Muscat

    Dr. Joseph Muscat is prime minister of Malta, one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. He led the Labour Party to a landslide win in March 2013 at the age of 39 and secured another landslide victory in June 2017. He is an economist and journalist and a former member of the European Parliament. He has been leader of the Labour Party for 10 years.