Celebrities, health officials come together to hail progress toward polio’s end

After a historic year during which transmission of the wild poliovirus vanished from Nigeria and the continent of Africa, the crippling disease is closer than ever to being eradicated worldwide, said top health experts at Rotary’s third annual World Polio Day event on 23 October in New York City.

More than 150 people attended the special Livestream program co-sponsored by UNICEF, and thousands more around the world watched online. Jeffrey Kluger, Time magazine’s editor at large, moderated the event.

Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, lauded the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s efforts. After nearly 30 years, the GPEI, which includes Rotary, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is on the cusp of ending polio. It would be only the second human disease ever to be eradicated. 

Lake urged the partners not to lose their momentum: “At a time when the world is torn by conflicts, when the bonds among people seem weaker and more frayed than ever before, ending polio will be not only one of humanity’s greatest achievements, but a singular and striking example of what can be achieved when diverse partners are driven by a common goal — when  we act as one,” he said.

The event highlighted recent milestones in polio eradication: In July, Nigeria marked one year without a case, and in August, the entire African continent celebrated one year without an outbreak. That leaves just two countries where the virus is regularly spreading: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In a question-and-answer session with Kluger, Dr. John Vertefeuille, polio incident manager for the CDC, discussed the reasons for Nigeria’s success, including strong political commitment at all levels and the support and engagement of religious and community leaders.

“The foundation to Nigeria’s success has been the incredible dedication of tens of thousands of health workers who have worked, often in difficult circumstances, to ensure that all children are reached with the polio vaccine,” said Vertefeuille.

Innovative changes, including strategies for reaching children who were often missed in the past, better mechanisms for ensuring the accountability of health workers, and the engagement of doctors, journalists, and polio survivors, also aided Nigeria in reaching its goal.

Polio eradication is progressing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, cases dropped from 28 in 2014 to 13 so far this year. In Pakistan, transmission of the disease dropped dramatically, from 306 cases to 38.

Kluger and Vertefeuille agreed that eradicating polio is a wise financial investment. Vertefeuille said financial savings of $50 billion are projected over the next 20 years.

Failure to eradicate polio, he noted, could result in a global resurgence of the disease, with 200,000 new cases every single year within 10 years.

Celebrities add their voices

Archie Panjabi, Emmy Award-winning actress and Rotary celebrity ambassador for polio eradication, praised Rotary’s success in banishing polio from India in 2012. “I’ve immunized children, feeling pure joy when I placed just two drops of vaccine into a child’s mouth, which are like two drops of life,” she said.

The audience also heard from musician, activist, and Grammy award-winner Angélique Kidjo, who performed a song from her latest album, “Eve.”

Dr. Jennifer Berman, cohost of the Emmy Award-winning television show “The Doctors” called Rotary’s role in eradicating polio “one of those transformative initiatives that uses the insights of science to improve the human condition.”

The program also featured video messages from Bill Gates; Mia Farrow, actress and polio survivor; Heidi Klum, model and celebrity businessperson; and two new Rotary polio ambassadors, WWE star John Cena and actress Kristen Bell.

“How do we stop polio forever? How do we ensure that no child has to suffer this disease ever again? It’s easy to help. Spread the word, donate, or simply take this opportunity to learn more,” said Bell.

Rotary boosts funding

Rotary General Secretary John Hewko announced an additional $40.4 million Rotary will direct to the fight against polio. More than $26 million will go to African countries to prevent the disease from returning. Rotary has also earmarked $5.3 million for India, $6.7 million for Pakistan, and $400,000 for Iraq. Nearly $1 million will support immunization activities and surveillance. Since 1979, Rotary has contributed more than $1.5 billion to polio eradication.

“Our program this evening will show how far we have come — and what we still have to do — to slam the door on polio for good,” said Hewko. “Once we do, not only will we end the suffering of children from this entirely preventable disease — we will also create a blueprint for the next major global health initiative and leave in place resources to protect the world’s health in the future.”

Event sponsors included Global Benefits Group, Spencer Trask & Company, Sanofi Pasteur, and Grant Thornton. Devex was the event’s media partner.

Watch the special World Polio Day Livestream event
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Contribute to End Polio Now

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