New York, 27 September 2000
Mr. Secretary-General, Excellencies, Dr. Brundtland, Dr. Shalala, Dr. Ndalolo, President Devlyn, Mr. Turner, Mr. Wirth, Ms. Farrow, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Only once before in human history have we witnessed the total eradication of a dread disease, and that was smallpox more than two decades ago. Now we stand on the brink of a second triumph: the global eradication of polio, a scourge that at one time killed or crippled half a million people a year, almost all of them children -- and is still menacing children in parts of Africa and South Asia.
There is no real mystery about how to do away with polio. It involves applying the same techniques and strategies that eliminated the virus from the Americas and the Western Pacific. That means seeing to it that all at-risk children between six months and five years of age receive two doses of oral polio vaccine every year -- and that all cases of paralysis are thoroughly investigated until we can certify that there is no more polio.
Our central challenge is sustaining the momentum. We are engaged in an undertaking of truly Olympian proportions, one that demands the highest degree of commitment and effort -- in service to a cause that unites the whole world. For as long as one child anywhere remains a transmitter of the polio virus, all children will remain at risk -- and until we reach that last child, all children in the vast areas of the planet that are polio-free will still need to be immunized.
The fight against polio has come this far because of a global partnership -- one involving governments, including agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; international organizations like WHO and UNICEF; the pharmaceutical industry, which produces the vaccine; and all levels of civil society, from communities and grassroots and religious groups to non-governmental organizations like Rotary International, the UN Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- and millions of dedicated individuals.
Progress in reaching all children will depend on three things -- the readiness of governments and all parties to conflict to ensure safe access to children at risk; the necessary resources to carry out immunization drives where access is possible -- and a social mobilization effort to educate families about the importance of immunization.
Immunization involves efforts that are nothing short of heroic. To deliver oral polio vaccine -- which is commonly administered in tandem with vitamin A supplements -- health workers have trekked through deserts and waded through waist-high water. The vaccine has been transported by camel in southern Sudan, by bicycle and motorbike in India, and by boat in Cambodia and Viet Nam. And in countries like Sri Lanka, El Salvador and Somalia, warring factions have put down their weapons to allow children to be immunized. But in other places, there has been no cessation in hostilities, and polio-eradication workers -- most of them unpaid volunteers -- have died while trying to carry out their mission. These losses are utterly unacceptable.
Moreover, transporting fresh polio vaccine from where it is manufactured to the remote regions where it is needed is always a relay race that requires many hands. At the starting line of that race are the vaccine producers. We appreciate the contribution that the world’s pharmaceutical industry has already made to polio eradication -- and we are counting on them to ensure that there will be enough polio vaccine on hand where and when it is needed to complete the task that we have all set ourselves.
Finally, we have already seen examples of the growing political commitment by the leaders of polio-affected countries -- countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I had the privilege of visiting last month to launch this year’s round of National Immunization Days -- and where I am pleased to report that huge logistical and security obstacles are being overcome, clearing the way for the immunization of 11 million children.
UNICEF is now working to help governments achieve a particularly ambitious target: synchronizing National Immunization Days in 17 West and Central African countries over the next two months. It is an effort that will result in the highest coverage ever achieved in that region, one that we believe will dramatically reduce polio transmission -- and I thank the Presidents of Nigeria and Mali for their early assistance.
Ladies and Gentlemen, if we can sustain these kinds of efforts for the next 24 months -- and if the countries that have already seen a dramatic decline in polio not only continue their high rate of immunization coverage but work to help other countries catch up quickly -- I have every confidence that we will be able to declare victory by 2005.
As many of you know, Mia Farrow has played an inspirational role in promoting public awareness of the polio-eradication campaign -- a part that she assumed last year, when she and her son Thaddeus, both of them battle-tested veterans of the polio war, helped launch The Progress of Nations 1999, UNICEF’s survey of progress toward child rights and women’s rights. So it gives me great pleasure to announce today that Mia Farrow has agreed to continue her work for UNICEF as a Special Representative. I cannot imagine a more worthy, or timely, appointment.
Mr. Secretary-General, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: UNICEF believes that all the world's children should grow to adulthood in health, peace and dignity. And so UNICEF has mobilized and joined the alliance to eradicate polio -- a fight not only against disease, but to end war -- and to champion every child’s right to survival, protection and full development.
The fight against polio is emblematic of the kind of effort that is needed to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is already undoing decades of gains, as well as to combat the common ailments that continue to kill nearly 12 million young children a year -- 2 million of whom succumb to other vaccine-preventable diseases, like measles and tetanus.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we stand at the most opportune moment imaginable for attaining the goals for child survival, development and protection that were set at the 1990 World Summit for Children -- and for mobilizing a global movement dedicated to achieving a breakthrough in human development based on specific actions for children in the 21st Century. Let the eradication of polio herald that breakthrough.
In that spirit, I invite Tim Wirth to read out the Polio Pledge on behalf of all those gathered here today.