The world has taken another important step towards eradicating the debilitating disease polio. Last month, Nigeria was officially removed from the list of polio-endemic countries, after a year in which no polio cases were reported in Nigeria, or, indeed, anywhere in Africa. This milestone follows last year's official certification of India and the entire south-east Asia region as polio-free, leaving polio endemic in just two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As we mark World Polio Day on Saturday, we are presented with an opportunity to reflect on one of the greatest public-health success stories in recent memory – a story with Australian origins. In 1979, Queenslander Clem Renouf helped launch an initiative that has saved untold millions of people from one of the world's most terrible diseases. Inspired by the World Health Organisation's eradication of smallpox that year, Renouf – just the second Australian to be elected president of Rotary International – mobilised the legion of Rotary clubs around the world to focus on making polio just the second human disease in history to be eradicated. The rest is history.
Rotary would eventually join UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch an extraordinary public-private partnership that has seen polio cases reduced by more than 99 per cent over the past 30 years.
The final outposts of the polio virus are undoubtedly the most challenging. Yet, even in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have seen remarkable progress. In Pakistan, for example, in the past 12 months alone, almost half a million children who were previously missed in vaccination programs have been reached for the first time. As a result, cases reported this year are only a third of the number reported this time last year.
The global community now has a window of opportunity to finish the job once and for all, provided all countries, including Australia, follow through on their financial and political commitments. Nothing can be taken for granted, as we have seen through previous setbacks and outbreaks in recent years in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
Although all outbreaks have since been contained, the threat of exportation of polio to other countries remains extremely high. Indeed, the international spread of polio virus from Pakistan is now a regional health security challenge and a serious threat to children in all polio-free countries. Many Australian health officials may still recall when a case of polio was imported into Australia by a Pakistani student in 2007.
That is why we hope Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will join other world leaders for a high-level meeting on polio eradication, taking place during next month's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta. Malta's Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, has already been vocal in his support for polio eradication, telling 60,000 people at the Global Citizen Festival in New York in September he would use the gathering of world leaders to push for renewed global support for the end of polio. We hope Turnbull will respond to this call to action, along with leaders from other key donor countries, such as Canada and Britain, together with the leaders of Nigeria and Pakistan.
Thirty-five years after Renouf first dreamt of a polio-free world, now is the time to redouble efforts to realise this. After all, investment in polio eradication will yield the ultimate return: future generations of children will be free of this devastating disease, while the international development community will benefit from the programme's knowledge and experience. We saw first-hand the power of the anti-polio infrastructure in 2014, when Nigeria, faced with a potential epidemic, was able to stop the spread of Ebola.
Additionally, achieving a polio-free world will reportedly reap financial savings of nearly $70 billion over the next two decades, proving what's possible when the global community comes together to improve children's lives.
Now, so close to seeing an end to this ancient and debilitating disease, we hope Australia will provide the support necessary to achieve what was once thought impossible. Only through redoubling our efforts, will we help finish what a fellow Australian began.
This article was originally published by Fairfax.
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