The eradication of polio has proven to be much more difficult than Rotary expected when it formally launched the PolioPlus initiative with the US Centers for Disease Control in 1988. Estimating a cost of $125 million for the job, Rotary raised $250 million to start its official race to end polio. Over $10 billion has been spent to date and close as we are, the finish line has not been reached.
Similarly, in 2014, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative comprising Rotary, the World Health Organization, the CDC, UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set out an “End Game Strategy” to put polio behind us once and for all by 2020. Twice since that time, the GPEI has had to acknowledge that targets weren’t met and that more time and money will be required.
It is as if having run 25 miles in a marathon, we’ve come around a bend to see the biggest hill of the race so far and the finish line is still not in sight. We know it’s close, but we don’t know how many hills to climb, rivers to cross or boulders we may have to move to get there.
When Rotary began the effort to beat polio in the mid-1980s, there were about 350,000 cases of polio each year. Last year, there were just 22, representing a drop of more than 99.99 percent. Already in 2018, however, we’ve had 11 cases compared to just six at this point last year.
It is clear there are obstacles between us and the finish line, but hope is not lost. The biggest challenge in this race is the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. Unvaccinated children in this region move around, sometimes ending up in cities, infecting children far from the fighting. In June, a cease-fire was reached between the Taliban and the Afghanistan army. The truce held and has been extended.
While there is no word yet on vaccination efforts during the cease-fire, you can be assured that all members of the GPEI are looking to this opportunity to bring the finish line clearly into view.
It is important to remember, however, that the marathon metaphor for the eradication of polio is a poor one. It puts the emphasis on the runners. The effort to end polio is not about the runners; it’s about the 15 million children who didn’t get polio over the past 30 years. It’s about creating a polio-free world where no child will ever be paralyzed by the disease again. A world where no mother will ever again be faced with the challenge of raising a child who may never walk again.