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Our collective effort to eradicate polio is close to success

The battle against polio is an extraordinary example of what can be achieved when we work together. This terrible disease, as my generation knows well, once cast a shadow over childhood across the world. Before the development of an effective vaccine nearly 60 years ago, it paralysed and killed up to half a million people every year.

Our collective effort to protect children from polio has united the world in a remarkable way. It has brought together UN agencies, governments, foundations, and private businesses as well as the funding and support of a million Rotarians who adopted this global cause as their own. Its success has brought broader benefits by demonstrating the incredible power of vaccines and helping drive improvements in health systems and services.

By 2000, we had cut dramatically the number of cases worldwide. But the disease was still found in 20 countries across large areas of Africa and Asia which was why, as UN secretary general, I made it a global priority to increase our efforts to eradicate polio.

Thirteen years later, this goal is now tantalisingly within our reach. The total number of cases worldwide last year fell to a record low of 223. After an extraordinary effort, India, perhaps the country which had the greatest challenge, has celebrated two full years without a single confirmed case. The disease is now endemic in only three nations: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

In these countries, polio largely survives in the communities on the fringes of society. It is the children of nomads, migrant workers, displaced populations and those living in areas of conflict and insecurity who are most at risk.

This is, of course, why eradicating polio is both so difficult and important. We have to deliver vaccines to the most marginalised of children, beyond the reach of the most basic of health services. But in doing so, we demonstrate our fundamental belief in the equal worth of every person. All children, whoever they are and wherever they live, deserve the protection life-saving vaccines provide.

But tackling polio is not only about altruism. Just as the prize is great if we succeed, so too is the fall-out if we fail. The World Health Organisation has warned the disease could again break out with a forecast of at least 200,000 new polio cases annually within 10 years. The hard-won progress of the last decades will be reversed. We cannot let this unique opportunity to create a lasting polio-free world be lost. It is why last year, under the auspices of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, the international community pledged to intensify efforts to eradicate the disease.

To realise this ambition, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative – a partnership that includes governments, the WHO, Rotary International, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Unicef and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is supported by the UN Foundation – has developed a six-year comprehensive strategy. It requires the countries where polio remains endemic to step up their efforts to vaccinate all their children, over 100 other nations to refine their polio immunisation programmes and the global community to find the $5.5bn (£3.6bn) needed in funding.

We have the strong personal commitment of the leaders of Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan already translated into effective programmes, to overcome local and security challenges to deliver vaccines to the hardest-to-reach children. These leaders have been supported by religious, traditional and community leaders who understand the importance of achieving this goal. Now it is up to the rest of us to ensure the money is available to help them.

Guaranteeing these funds is one of the main reasons for the Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi this week. I would urge both new partners, including philanthropists and the private sector, and past donors – including the G8 and the EU – to dig deep to support this cause.

But the summit is also an opportunity to highlight the critical role of vaccines in improving health and driving development. We now have the vaccines to protect against a wide variety of deadly diseases. All children, whoever they are and wherever they live, deserve this protection.

Our success in tackling polio has already spared more than 10 million people from lifelong paralysis while the financial benefits of ending the disease have been estimated at over $40bn, with most of those savings accruing to the world’s poorest countries. Global public goods such as disease eradication deliver a better and more equitable world for everybody.

We now have the chance to consign polio, like smallpox, to the history books. By coming together, we can pass a crucial milestone in transforming global health, demonstrate how collective action delivers social justice and equity, and blaze a path for the next ambitious goal for public good.