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United States and Organization of the Islamic Conference join forces against polio

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2177/Susan Markisz
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman addresses attendees during the panel discussion. Beside her are (L-R) Permanent Observer Mission of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Ambassador Abdul Wahab and United States Representative on the Economic and Social Council to the United Nations Ambassador Frederick D. Barton.

By Elizabeth Kiem

NEW YORK, USA 3 December 2009 – The United States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) resolved to work together to eradicate polio from the last remaining endemic countries. The launch of the joint initiative – a response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for such an effort in Cairo last June – was held yesterday at UNICEF Headquarters in New York.

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The United States was represented by Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations Frederick D. Barton. He was joined by Ambassador to the Permanent Observer Mission of the OIC to the United Nations in New York, Abdul Wahab. 
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman applauded the cooperation agreement and welcomed a panel of experts to discuss current initiatives and future challenges.

Global coordination

Since the establishment of a globally coordinated polio eradication program by the World Health Assembly in 1988, polio has been very nearly driven from the globe. In little over two decades, 2.5 billion children have been immunized, reducing the number of polio cases by more than 99 per cent and slashing the number of polio endemic countries from 125 countries to just four.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), by any measure, has made “phenomenal progress,” said Ambassador Barton.

Ambassador Wahab said that efforts to address the persistence of polio in countries where populations have shown concerns or opposition to vaccination campaigns are currently taking place at “the highest levels” of the OIC.

A recent edict issued by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy urges parents and health officials to vaccinate their children with backing from the teachings of the Quran.

Progress in sight

The cooperation comes at a favorable time for the GPEI. In the four countries of concern, recent technical innovations and political commitment have paved the way for progress, according to Director of GPEI for the World Health Organization Dr. Bruce Aylward.

Noting that the OIC has been critical in recent years in establishing confidence in the polio vaccine among the population, as well in providing financial and communication support, Dr. Aylward said there was progress to report in all four endemic countries.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2180/Susan Markisz
Bruce Aylward, Director, Global Polio Eradication Initiative, World Health Organization, addressed the panel.

“In Afghanistan, there was a tremendous effort with NATO and with the Taliban to look at access in the last ten [affected] districts. In Nigeria, there’s been tremendous effort to work with traditional leaders,” he said.

Together with “new tactics” in India and Pakistan and new clinical trials for advanced vaccines, the initiative, said Dr. Aylward, “is a manageable problem, geographically and operationally.”

A public-private partnership

James Lacy, the panelist representing Rotary International, the leading private organization behind the successful Global Polio Eradication Initiative, said both the OIC and President Obama have shown commitment and leadership in polio eradication. His organization welcomed “the collaboration of the OIC in addressing myths and misconceptions held by some of their polio affected member states.”

Rotary International has contributed more than 800 million dollars to polio eradication, the largest contribution ever made by an international service organization to a public health initiative. It is currently undertaking its third global fundraising campaign.

Partnering with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF, this global coalition has mobilized more than 20 million volunteers in 200 countries for mass immunization campaigns.

Mr. Lacy noted that the GPEI had been singled out by the U.S. Congress as a “perfect example of how a private public partnership works.”

Final push

While the panellists were encouraging about the prospects of global eradication, they also noted the very high stakes for failure.

“If we do not finish the job of eradication, it may be 100,000, it may be 200,000 – but it will be hundreds of thousands of children who will be paralyzed every single year if we do not finish the job,” said Dr. Aylward.

Aggressive multi-country outbreaks are currently ongoing in West Africa, as Nigeria’s outbreak spills across borders. Financial deficits endanger the gains made thus far; and the GPEI reports estimates another $2.3 billion in external resources are needed, with a funding gap of $900 million.

As the panel moderator Dr. William Foege of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said: “there have been setbacks and heartbreaks” on the fast-track towards eradication. “But the future will not look back and thank us for starting the polio eradication program,” he said, “it will thank us for ending it.”




2 December 2009:

James Lacy of Rotary International’s Polio Eradication task Force addresses the panel.
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Dr. Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organization gauges progress made in polio eradication efforts in the remaining endemic countries.
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