Campaign: Global Citizen News

The Relevance of Conversations in Our Global Effort to End Polio

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Ramesh Ferris is a global health advocate and Canadian polio survivor


In the 1950’s, mothers everywhere were having conversations with each other and demanding their government leaders take action and fund research for a polio vaccine in order to prevent their children from dying and becoming paralyzed by the dreaded polio virus.

Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the first successful polio vaccine on April 12, 1955, declared that a person couldn’t patent the sun — a public good — so why would he patent his polio vaccine. Instead, he saw his polio vaccine as his gift to the world to help eradicate polio.

When Senior Rotarian leaders gathered around a table in the 1980’s they discussed how to provide the gift of the polio vaccine to every child in the world to ensure the world would be polio free. The Rotary International Polio Plus Program was established in 1985.

In May of 1988 in Geneva Global Leaders at the 41st World Health Assembly discussed polio eradication efforts. After immense public pressure, Global Leaders at the assembly answered the call to action to create a worldwide program to end polio. It was then that the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the world’s largest private/public health initiative, was established. Since the start of this global health initiative in 1988 we have reduced polio by 99.9% , and we are now headed into the final stretch of our end polio efforts.

Today there have been conversations in the public about whether or not to vaccinate children against polio. Some believe that the vaccines cause autism. However, this has been scientifically proven to be completely false. Yet people in some areas of the world are starting to develop an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude towards polio — but just because we don't commonly see cases of polio anymore, doesn't mean we've fully eradicated it.

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Through my conversations with others, I have found that people are both optimistic and fatigued. Some people even wonder if we should just be trying to contain the wild polio virus rather than trying to eradicate it completely. But if we waiver even the tiniest bit in our efforts to end polio, we risk losing everything we have gained in the fight against the virus. If we do not eradicate polio, it could come back stronger than ever and spread like wildfire. It’s important to remember that a case of polio anywhere in the world, is a threat to children everywhere.

World leaders need to continue to have conversations around the virus and how our global polio eradication program can serve as a blueprint for combatting other diseases and a resource for health workers to reach the most vulnerable global citizens with life saving healthcare services.

In the last couple of years I’ve had opportunities to speak with Chris Martin, Olivia Wilde, Paris Jackson, Bill Gates, and Dr. Tedros — the new Director General of the World Health Organization — at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City. From these conversations, I learned that Chris Martin’s uncle had polio, Olivia Wilde’s father had polio, and Paris Jackson’s grandmother contracted polio right before the release of the 1955 polio vaccine. Dr. Tedros said that polio eradication continues to be one of the World Health Organization’s top priorities and Bills Gates expressed elation over our global efforts and the progress made to finally ending this horrific disease.

If I wasn’t able to have these conversations as a grassroots advocate to end polio at the Global Citizen Festival, I wouldn’t not be able to emphasize to you now how relevant polio is today, even among many notable Global Citizens. It's essential that we do everything possible to support each other in order to have these important conversations. We must ensure that the fight to end polio is not forgotten — it must return to mainstream discussion and remain in the spotlight. The eradication of polio should be a cause close to everyone's hearts, until polio becomes a disease that exists only in history books!

With $1.2 billion committed to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, Georgia this year, world health officials are working to reduce the incidences of polio to their lowest ever level. With the continued support of Rotarians everywhere, and the many actions taken by Global Citizens, I’m completely convinced that people have not lost hope in the fight to end polio.

In 1980 in Coimbatore, India, people weren’t having conversations about how vaccines work, or about the importance of children everywhere having equal access to vaccines. Because these conversations never occurred, my birth mother was unaware of the polio virus and the importance of the polio vaccine. I contracted polio, which paralyzed my legs for life, 25 years after the release of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.

In our final push to end polio we must ensure that our conversations remain positive, we remain optimistic, and our commitment remains stronger than ever.

As Global Citizens we all have a relevant role to play. Let’s do everything possible to ensure our conversations continue so that we can cross the finish line and end polio once and for all.

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