New York, 22 July 1999
Secretary Shalala, President Ravizza, Mrs. Sabin, Ms. Farrow and Thaddeus, Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen: Only once in human history have we witnessed the total eradication of a dreaded disease, and that was smallpox more than two decades ago.
Now humanity stands 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, many of them children.
Victory is achingly close, as you will learn from this year's edition of The Progress of Nations 1999, UNICEF's annual survey of progress toward child rights and women's rights that I am pleased to present to you today.
In 1988, when the international community vowed to eradicate polio by the end of the year 2000, there were 35,000 confirmed cases of the disease.
Last year, there were only about 6,000 cases, according to the World Health Organisation's latest reckoning -- and nearly all of them were concentrated in 13 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Those 6,000 polio cases represent a worldwide drop of more than 86 per cent in just 10 years.
How did we manage to come so far?
Ladies and gentlemen, the fight against polio has succeeded up to now because it has truly been a global effort -- one involving national governments, international agencies like WHO and UNICEF, communities, non-governmental organisations like Rotary International and other diverse elements of civil society, all working toward a common goal.
The immunization effort alone has been 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.
The result? Two-thirds of all children under the age of 5 -- 450 million of them -- have been received protection against polio in each of the last two years, an astonishing percentage.
Indeed, the war against polio is emblematic of the kind of vast collective effort that the world must mount if we are to make serious inroads against HIV/AIDS, which is already threatening to undo decades of gains in child survival and development. And it shows what we must do to eliminate the common ailments that continue to kill 12 million young children a year, 2 million of whom die of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, tetanus, tuberculosis, pertussis and diphtheria, as well as polio.
Ladies and gentlemen, the speakers you will hear this morning are representative of just some of the myriad groups and individuals who have helped spearhead the research, the immunization campaigns and the surveillance programmes that have brought the polio struggle to this point.
All are united in their determination to end needless suffering -- and they share the understanding that in this age of globalised threats, partnerships at all levels are essential.
On behalf of the United Nations Children's Fund, I am very pleased to welcome Heloisa Sabin, who has worked tirelessly to carry on the legacy of her husband, Dr. Albert Sabin, the visionary scientist and humanitarian who gave us the gift of the oral polio vaccine, or OPV, as it is known in the field.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is this colourful elixir, dispensed to children in tiny dispensers like these, that has prevented literally millions of cases of paralytic polio.
I am also delighted to welcome US Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, whose Department has contributed significantly to the global polio campaign through the work of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We are also privileged to have with us the President of Rotary International, Carlo Ravizza, whose organisation has spent some $340 million on worldwide polio eradication efforts since 1985.
And I want to welcome Mia Farrow and her son Thaddeus, both of them eloquent, battle-tested veterans of the war to eradicate polio.
Ladies and gentlemen, that war is one that we could still lose -- and that could happen unless we ensure that we reach the remaining children under the age of 5 who lack protection against polio.
Tragically, millions of them have been pushed out of reach by ongoing civil conflicts and political strife, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where deepening poverty and donor complacency are making a desperate situation unimaginably worse.
Indeed, countries like Angola and Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo face serious polio outbreaks because fighting has forced the suspension of immunization efforts in many areas.
We also face an unacceptable shortage of global resources.
It will cost $1.25 billion to finish the job of eradicating polio -- $750 million of which has already been pledged. In other words, we face a $500 million shortfall in what is needed to reach the agreed-upon target date at the end of the year 2000.
That is 527 days from now. Ladies and gentlemen, in a $30 trillion global economy, $500 million more is clearly a small price to pay for such a large return.
Sometime this year, if not already, the world's population will reach the six billion mark -- and as UNICEF reports in The Progress of Nations, a massive, final push is needed if that 6 billionth child is to grow up in a world free of polio -- much less cope with the overwhelming likelihood that he or she will be born into a life marked by malnutrition, inadequate or no schooling, poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water.
Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford to falter, not when we are so close. If we cannot administer a coup de grace to polio, there will be grounds to question the international community's resolve to make good on its commitments to achieve all the other target goals for child survival, development and protection that were agreed to at the 1990 World Summit for Children.
As The Progress of Nations points out, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which threatens every aspect of child well-being, must be a major priority. In many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, there is not just an HIV crisis, but a broad-scale, interlinked emergency involving not only HIV infection itself, but tuberculosis, which is facilitated by HIV, and by malaria, which kills nearly 3,000 children a day in Africa alone.
Moreover, as our report today points out, the pandemic is creating a vast population of orphaned children whose marginalisation violates virtually every article of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
That is why we were so encouraged by the news last week of a promising and dramatically more affordable drug regimen to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. UNICEF is working on an urgent basis with WHO and UNAIDS to assess the implications of this drug, Nevirapine, whose effectiveness has undergone initial study in Uganda by the US National Institutes of Health.
We also know that a raft of advanced new vaccines now under development against other ailments could save the lives of up to 8 million additional children a year in the next 5 to 15 years alone. UNICEF and its partners have already begun laying the groundwork for a campaign to ensure that those vaccines become widely available -- beginning with the children of sub-Saharan Africa, whose survival rates are already in obvious decline.
But as The Progress of Nations 1999 shows, we cannot address the global child health crisis without simultaneously attacking the neglect and indifference that has condemned the world's poorest and most vulnerable nations to strangulation by external debt. It is clear that debt relief and outright cancellation will not in itself ensure child rights -- but it is an essential starting point if the world is to end the poverty and economic disparities that deny millions of children their fundamental rights to health and basic education.
I will stop here, in hope that I have given you a sense of the progress we see toward child rights -- and the daunting challenges -- that are documented in this year's edition of The Progress of Nations.
We will be happy to take your questions at the end of the presentations -- so let me begin by yielding the floor to the first of our guest speakers, Secretary Shalala.