Over the past two decades, polio has been reduced by 99 percent around the world. Today, it remains endemic in only four countries: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. While three of these countries are making tremendous progress to eliminate the disease, Pakistan is seeing a rise in infection rates. Last year there were 144 registered polio cases, the highest number since 2000.
Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stressed the importance of polio eradication in his third annual letter released earlier this year. Polio is an infectious viral disease that primarily affects young children and can lead to permanent paralysis. It can also be prevented by vaccinations.
“Getting rid of polio will mean that no child will be paralyzed or die by this disease,” wrote Gates. “Any major advance in the human condition requires resolve and courageous leadership. We are so close, but we have to finish the last leg of the journey.”
In January, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari launched a National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication, a formal plan to eliminate polio in the country. Shortly afterwards, Gates and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi each pledged $50 million to help polio vaccines reach 32 million children in Pakistan.
“Vaccines protect children from many life-threatening childhood diseases, providing the best way to give a child a healthy start to life,” said Gates. “This partnership is a powerful example of how collaboration by the global community can help build a healthier, more stable future for Pakistani children, their families and communities.”
The benefits of immunizing more children go beyond preventing the spread of polio. A recent study by the non-profit organization Kid Risk estimated that polio eradication could save the world up to $50 billion in reduced treatment costs and productivity gains.
“If societies can’t provide for people’s basic health, if they can’t feed and educate people, then their populations and problems will grow and the world will be a less stable place,” Gates wrote. “Whether you believe it a moral imperative or in the rich world’s enlightened self-interest, securing the conditions that will lead to a healthy, prosperous future for everyone is a goal I believe we all share.”