Once upon a time, a disease called polio caused epidemics around the world. Children were kept out of schools and swimming pools out of fear that they would contract the disease. In 1955, a polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk was introduced to the world and a generation of Americans became vaccinated against polio.

Vaccines are often referred to as a “best buy” in global health. This is particularly true when it comes to polio. Largely due to the introduction of vaccines, polio was eradicated in the United States in 1979.

In 1988, the year before I was born, the world faced over 350,000 cases of polio. That year, key organizations like the World Health Organization, Rotary International, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF joined together to create the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and to develop a plan to see the end of polio forever.

One of the greatest advocates for polio eradication was Nelson Mandela. Mandela played a key role in kicking off South Africa’s polio eradication efforts in the mid-1990s. On World Health Day in April 1995, he announced that South Africa was putting its support behind the notion of a world without polio. The following year, Mandela launched the “Kick Polio out of Africa” campaign. Mandela recognized the key role of community health workers in Africa and acknowledged their important contribution to reducing polio case numbers. He explained that, “[O]ur aim is not merely to reduce the numbers afflicted - it is to eliminate the disease completely. No country can be safe from this disease until the whole world is rid of it. For it can cross borders with ease.”

The progress towards reaching polio eradication has been clear. The last case of wild poliovirus in the Americas was reported in Peru in 1991. Europe was declared polio free in 2002.

I started working for Global Poverty Project in 2011 just as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings were kicking off in Australia. Global Poverty Project organized a concert in Perth, Australia to demonstrate public support for ending polio. And, as a result of the concert and the advocacy of partners like Rotary International, world leaders from Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Nigeria and Pakistan joined Bill Gates to pledge over $100 million in new funds to help deliver a polio-free world. Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the world was in sight of “the great goal of eradicating polio.” “Nearly eradicated is not good enough,” he said. “When we have the vaccines and tools to save children’s lives, it is not good enough to wait. Because while we wait, children are dying. As long as one child remains at risk, all children remain at risk, and that isn’t a risk we can take.” Mr. Cameron challenged other countries to follow their example, saying “few ideas are more powerful than the eradication of human disease - what is missing is the political will to see it through. Let us eradicate polio once and for all.”

In 2012, the World Health Assembly declared global polio eradication "a programmatic emergency for global public health." Later that year the leadership of Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan stood side by side at the United Nations to commit, along with Bill Gates and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to prioritize polio eradication.

Since then, India has been declared polio-free. Recent outbreaks in the Horn and Central Africa appear to have been stopped, and on July 24, Africa’s last polio-endemic country reached one year without a reported case. While a year without a case on the continent is not an official milestone, this represents important progress toward eradication.

Thanks to the hard work of Africa’s governments, partners, community and religious leaders, and health workers, the continent is on track to end polio. This would leave only two countries where polio transmission has never been interrupted: Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Africa has achieved a historic public health milestone, the job is not yet finished. To end polio forever, all countries – both endemic and non-endemic – must maintain high-quality vaccination campaigns, improve surveillance and strengthen routine immunization.

That is where the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta this November comes into play. 53 heads of government will meet to discuss some of the most pressing issues of our time. Yet, there’s a strong risk that they won’t even mention polio.

Back in 2011, the Commonwealth showed great leadership for achieving a polio-free world for all children in all countries. This year, global citizens have an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that Commonwealth leaders recommit to ending polio for good.

To make this happen, we need political leaders in key polio endemic countries—Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan—and from major countries that provide funding for eradication—UK, Canada and Australia—to come together and renew their commitment to end polio.

TAKE ACTION NOW by calling on leaders from these countries to end this terrible disease.


Defeat Poverty

We are one step closer to seeing the end of polio

By Judith Rowland