Ramesh Ferris — Eleven years ago, I had the edge of my hand cycle resting up against the starting line at Mile Zero of the Trans Canada Highway in Victoria, British Columbia. It was here where I — a polio survivor living with the effects of the terrible paralytic disease — was about to commence the biggest journey of my life, handcycling 7,140 kilometres across Canada to the easternmost point in North America, Cape Spear, Newfoundland.
Larry Bagnell — That day in April 2008, myself, Yukon’s Commissioner Geraldine Van Bibber, and so many others were by Ramesh’s side, cheering him on. We proudly joined him in his mission to promote the important message that vaccines work, and to raise awareness and funds for the global effort to eradicate polio.
This World Immunization Week, we are reflecting on the Cycle to Walk campaign as we are witnessing a series of outbreaks of measles, a vaccine-preventable disease, in Canada and the United States, as well as in countries around the world. This signals that there continues to be an urgent need for vaccines globally, as North American travellers often contract the disease abroad. It also points to the need for public awareness that vaccines work and are safe.
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This is especially true in the case of polio and its global eradication effort through vaccination campaigns. In 1988, there were over 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries. In the years following, the number of cases of polio and countries where polio was found were drastically reduced. Today, the world is on the edge of eradicating the disease once and for all, with only 33 wild polio cases reported in 2018.
Canada is no stranger to this effort. For years, we have provided significant support and leadership to protect vulnerable children against polio in hard-to-reach places. In total, Canada has contributed more than CAD $750 million to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a global partnership between the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2002, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was the first Canadian leader to place polio eradication in the G8 Leaders Declaration, encouraging commitments from member countries. Prime Ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper continued Canada’s leadership, including through the Muskoka Initiative. More recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supported statements of commitment to polio eradication at multiple global summits, and in 2017 pledged $100 million CAD to the cause on behalf of Canada.
It's World Immunization Week!— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) April 23, 2019
Vaccine-preventable diseases include:
Yellow Fever#VaccinesWork! pic.twitter.com/ppyyAu9SnV
The only way to stop poliovirus for good is through sustained commitment and partnership. The GPEI is a shining example of that, bringing together governments, international agencies, civil society organizations, volunteer advocates, and health workers (especially women) — all working towards strengthening health care systems and achieving a polio-free world. The lessons learned from polio eradication efforts are also successfully being applied to help eliminate measles, tetanus, and rubella, to combat Ebola, and provide concrete examples of what universal health coverage can achieve.
Our fellow Canadians also continue to play a major role in sustaining the polio program. Canadian Rotarians, including the Whitehorse Rotary Club, have raised more than USD $38 million for the cause. Canadian civil society groups and their members, including Global Citizen Canada, RESULTS Canada, and the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children's Health, continue to campaign for a sustained Canadian commitment to polio eradication. Internationally, Global Citizens have taken over 620,000 actions, helping to encourage governments to commit USD $1.9 billion to the GPEI.
But the job is not yet complete, with three polio-endemic countries remaining: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Polio does not respect borders, so a lapse in commitment risks a resurgence of the disease in other countries.
With Canada’s international aid funding for health scheduled to sunset in early 2020, now is the time for us to consider how Canada will extend its global leadership to help deliver the polio vaccine to every last child. This forms an important part of the Thrive Agenda, an ambitious plan developed by Canadian civil society organizations for the future of Canadian investment in women and children's health, nutrition, and rights around the world.
With ongoing concerns around contagious diseases and public trust in vaccines, World Immunization Week serves as an opportunity for Canadians to learn more and talk about the importance of health in our communities and around the world. Even just ensuring our vaccinations are up to date is something we all can do to protect ourselves and others. We must also ensure that Canada and other countries remain committed to protecting the world’s most vulnerable people, especially children, from infectious diseases like polio, and ultimately eradicate it once and for all.