Opinion and Editorial

UAE shows the way in global fight against polio

Bill Gates
Filed on November 20, 2019 | Last updated on November 20, 2019 at 08.29 pm

Sheikh Mohammed is also using the UAE's expertise and relationships in the region to accelerate disease elimination.

The UAE's commitment to ending diseases of poverty goes back decades. Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's founding father, was among the first international leaders to join in this effort.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and I began working together on childhood immunisation and polio eradication in 2011. Since then, I have seen his dedication - evident not only in his generous financial support, but also in his ability to bring together partners in the global health community. Today is one example of that.

Sheikh Mohammed is also using the UAE's expertise and relationships in the region to accelerate disease elimination. For example, under his leadership, the UAE-Pakistan Assistance Program has carried out its own polio vaccination campaigns in Pakistan to reach kids who haven't previously been immunised.

Two years ago, Sheikh Mohammed established the Global Institute for Disease Elimination, with support from our foundation. Sheikh Mohammed and I also partnered to create the Reaching the Last Mile Fund, which is focused on eliminating river blindness and lymphatic filariasis in the Sahel.

I'm delighted that several new donors have joined the fund. The fight against these and other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) is a personal priority of mine. Seven years ago, the world united around the London Declaration on NTDs. Since then, 31 countries have eliminated at least one NTD. The London Declaration expires next year, presenting the world with an opportunity to renew its commitment to achieving the SDG goal of eliminating NTDs by 2030. The progress on NTDs is a powerful example of what's possible when we take responsibility to care for each other. It's exciting to see this happening in other areas of global health.

Today, we are reaffirming our support for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). When it comes to polio eradication, I'm often asked: why aren't we done yet? This is understandable. Most people focus on how many cases of polio are left in the world, and that number has hovered just above zero for a few years now. But even a single child paralysed by polio is one too many. And we know that if we stopped eradication efforts now, there could be a resurgence of up to 200,000 cases annually by 2029. There is another way to look at where we are today, and that's to analyse how far we've come.

But still, there's that question: why aren't we done yet? The answer is that polio persists in some of the most complex and challenging places on earth. In war zones inaccessible to vaccinators. Among migrant and nomadic populations on the move. In remote areas. In neighbourhoods where some parents don't want their children immunised. And in communities where the health system is so weak that it can't provide basic health services like polio vaccines as part of routine immunisation.

And, as there are fewer and fewer cases of polio, detecting the virus becomes more difficult. Most people infected with it show no signs of paralysis, which means the virus can circulate silently for long periods of time before it is detected or causes paralysis in a child. So, the GPEI has had to cast a wide net to reach every child who may be at risk of getting polio, while simultaneously tailoring strategies to track and stop every last trace of the disease.

To accomplish this, the GPEI established Emergency Operations Centres in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which operate as command centres for all polio-related decision-making. By bringing together government and international partners, epidemiologists, and surveillance and public health experts under one roof, the EOCs can respond quickly to outbreaks - not only of polio, but also other diseases.

Nigeria was the first country to establish an EOC for polio. With its help, Nigeria has gone three years now without a single reported case of wild polio, setting the stage for the entire African region to be certified wild polio-free in 2020. The EOCs also function as a central hub for other critical functions of the polio programme. Many of these are things the GPEI has pioneered to get the polio vaccine to children everywhere, while also hunting down remaining vestiges of the virus.

A promising new oral polio vaccine is currently in clinical trials that, if proven safe and effective, will be an additional tool to protect children from all forms of polio. While the last steps to eradication are undoubtedly the toughest, I'm optimistic that with the GPEI's persistence and creativity - and the continued support of partners and endemic country leaders -we will eradicate polio.

We know it can't happen without a strong commitment at all levels of government. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has given me his personal assurance that he will tackle the obstacles to eradication in Pakistan head-on. And the governments of Pakistan and Nigeria have put new money into the polio program alongside other donor resources.

The renewed financial support from donors, including the large increase by Sheikh Mohammed, underscores the confidence that the world continues to have in the GPEI. As a sign of my confidence, our foundation is pledging an additional $1.08 billion, including a match of Sheikh Mohammed's contribution to the UAE-Pakistan Assistance Program and a continuation of our 2:1 match with Rotary International. Eradicating polio will be an historic moment. But it won't be the only thing people remember. The GPEI has demonstrated how to mobilise support for health initiatives at all levels of society. It has proven that it's possible to overcome enormous geographic, cultural and gender barriers to reach vulnerable children in some of the most inaccessible places on earth.

These are just a few of the insights and lessons learned that will shape and guide other health initiatives for decades to come. -Edited excerpts from Bill Gates' speech at Reaching the Last Mile Forum held in Abu Dhabi on November 19 

Bill Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

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