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Of All the Problems in the World, Why Polio?

Today we are facing the worst refugee crisis that the world has ever seen. Every night 795 million people are going to bed hungry. Currently 2.4 billion people — that’s 35% of the global population — are living without proper sanitation, causing the deaths of 600,000 lives of children aged under 5 every year.

So why, in this context of such major issues of global poverty, would Global Citizen bother with polio? A disease that has claimed only 27 cases this year. A disease that for many young people seems like something their grandparents had to worry about at their age, not them. Here’s why.

1) Because of the suffering it inflicts

Polio is a debilitating and waterborne virus which is more likely to affect children aged under 5 than any other age group. It attacks the nervous system and can leave people paralyzed for life.    

A cruel twist to this unimaginably cruel disease is post-polio syndrome, in which survivors, after years of leading a life of relative normalcy, suffer again from the impact of the disease on their body. Degeneration in the nervous system after a bout of polio allows for the onset of renewed weakness, fatigue and breathing difficulties, and forces people to adapt to the new challenges the disease throws at them. Many of whom have already spent much of their lives re-learning how to do tasks most of us take for granted like walk, or hold their children. 

Take the polio survivor, Giles Large, who was previously a journalist that traveled the world with his job. When Giles turned 50, his body started to let him down. Now he can barely walk 10 meters. 

giles large.pngPolio Survivor, Giles Large in the One Last Push campaign, led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, of which Global Citizen is a partner

2) Because of the brighter future that eradication promises

Polio is highly infectious, spreading through water. People living in areas with limited access to running water or proper sanitation often contract polio from drinking water contaminated by infected human waste. The virus is so contagious that anyone living with someone who has recently contracted the virus is at risk, too. 

If polio still exists then so does the potential for another epidemic, like the last one in the US in 1952 which paralyzed 21,269 children. As the Prime Minister of Norway said in her public plea to eradicate polio for good, “The existence of polio anywhere poses a threat to all of us everywhere.”

Erna Solberg 7 million people .jpgPM of Norway Erna Solberg

Moreover, if polio were to be eradicated, it would pave the way for seeing an end to other preventable diseases. As the G7 noted in May of this year, the infrastructure put in place to wipe out polio has already benefited health systems around the world tackling other illnesses.

So far, only one disease has been eradicated by vaccination in human history: smallpox. If we were to wipe polio off the Earth, too, it would be critical proof to all that the Millennium Development Goals are achievable. Thus incentivizing world leaders to do their part in hitting the most ambitious targets on poverty anyone has ever set.

3) Because we can

The generation that suffered under polio. from The race against polio on Vimeo.

“Polio is just as cruel now as it was then. The difference is today we can do more than just prevent it. We can end it.”

This statement from the One Last Push polio campaign above, could not be more true.  Before the vaccine was introduced in 1955, polio caused thousands of deaths worldwide every year. Since Rotary International spearheaded a global initiative to eradicate polio for good, the disease has been reduced by 99.9%.    

This year only 27 cases have been recorded. This record number is down by 50% since 2015. Yet that number is no victory when you consider that every single one of those 27 cases was entirely avoidable.

The two places where polio still holds out is Nigeria and the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where some of the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities reside. Many of the children in this area have had to deal with the daily trauma of living in a conflict zone and also face the perils of polio. 


We need at least $1.5 billion to eliminate polio in these areas and end it forever. Raising this amount is no small feat but world leaders are certainly responding to pressure from Global Citizens and their campaign partners.

Global Citizen, in collaboration with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership led by national governments with five partners, WHO, Rotary International, CDC, the Gates Foundation and UNICEF, have been urging world leaders to put forward vital funds towards eradicating polio worldwide.

Government heads of Australia have recently been stepping up, with over 20 MPs signing up to become Polio Champions, committed to ‘One Last Push’ for eradication. After meeting with Global Citizen and signing up himself, Federal Cabinet Minister Greg Hunt on Wednesday of this week tweeted the following:

The leader of the opposition party, Bill Shorten, definitely won some votes on the same day when he asked what Global Citizen wanted him to do if he becomes Prime Minister of Australia.  He also agreed to champion our ask for Australia to maintain funding at $15M per annum through to 2019.

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From left: Global Citizen Australia Director Sarah Meredith, Global Citizen Global Policy & Advocacy Director Michael Sheldrick, Australian Opposition Party leader Bill Shorten, polio advocate and athlete Ramesh Ferris and Global Citizen Australian Board Member Trish Daley 

After Global Citizens took 134,470 actions on polio eradication, there were multiple commitments and announcements made toward the issue at the Global Citizen Festival of this year on Sept. 24.


Standing on stage in front of 60,000 cheering Global Citizens, the Baroness Patricia Scotland called on the 58 Commonwealth countries to renew their support.

The first Commonwealth nation that stepped up to the challenge was Luxembourg, whose Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, announced at least €2 million (500,000 euros a year until 2019) for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, set to affect the lives of more than 3 million people.

Then the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced $30,000 to GPEI through to 2019 — a symbolic commitment set to affect 60,000 lives - and called on other leading commonwealth donors — United Kingdom, Canada and Australia - to step up, via video message.

Another video message that drove huge excitement at the Festival was a double act from Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and megastar Usher. The Canadian Prime Minister acknowledged the ton of phone calls and tweets from Global Citizens that have “flooded” his office, before making this promising declaration of support: “Canada has long supported efforts to fight polio, which is now 99.9% eliminated. And we will be a strong partner through to the end.” 

Considering there are three more years left of Trudeau’s term, such positive inroads suggest that the $150 million Global Citizens have been asking Canada for, may well come. If we keep the pressure on that is…

Of course the campaign signatures, the tweets and the public pledges are not enough to actually end polio. It is up to the health workers on the ground toiling every day to deliver vaccines to children in hard-to-reach and often dangerous locations.

Yet, as Global Citizen Global Policy & Advocacy Director Michael Sheldrick implored in his TEDX talk this week, all of that effort, “combined with actions of other concerned individuals, could generate just enough pressure to force a government to make this a priority and contribute much needed funding, in turn enabling the brave health workers to finish their job.”

polio health workers.jpg

We are taking the right steps in the right direction to make the poignant words of polio survivor in the UK and One Last Push advocate, Colin Powell, a reality.

“I wish I could dance – to experience that combination of music and movement together. I wish I could run for a train or jump on a bus without having to plan any travel arrangement, no matter how simple, with military precision. I wish I could tie my own shoelaces, without needing the help of my wife. Those three things I will never be able to do. I want to ensure that we manage to eradicate Polio completely so no child ever has those same three wishes.”

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That is the why behind eradicating polio.  The how is up to Global Citizens.

Today is World Polio Day.  The time is now to urge world leaders to take one last push.  For Colin and for all children everywhere.