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Wirth and Worthington: With Polio Eradication Closer Than Ever, Now Is No Time to Retrench

The world is at an urgent crossroads in public health. With only a few more than 50 cases worldwide so far in 2012, we are closer than ever to eradicating polio. But progress might not hold with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative facing a nearly $1 billion funding gap.

With this shortfall, the initiative has had to cut campaign activities that will result in many more children falling victim to polio and losing ground on our progress. That future is unacceptable.

If donors invest $2 billion in polio eradication now, we can save countless lives by 2035, and the world can save an estimated $40 billion to $50 billion.

We commend the world’s health ministers for declaring polio eradication a programmatic emergency at the World Health Assembly today. Building off India’s recent success in ending transmission of polio this year — long regarded as the most difficult place to eliminate the virus — this resolution and the Emergency Action Plan must provide new energy and political commitment to get the job done.

When the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was started in 1988, polio was infecting more than 350,000 people in 125 countries. Now it’s down to just three countries — Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan — that have never interrupted the transmission of polio and continue to export the virus across borders.

The United States has been a leader in this fight, contributing more than $1 billion and sending experts to the front lines of the fight against polio. We urge Congress and the Obama administration to continue their support to help finish the job until every child is free from the threat of polio.

The surge of support for the United Nations Foundation’s recently launched Shot@Life campaign shows that Americans are solidly behind efforts to vaccinate children in developing countries against preventable diseases.

And there will be direct benefits to the United States when polio is finally gone.

With eradication will come cost savings, above and beyond preventing the terrible burden of death and disease on a country, community and family. Take smallpox eradication as an example. According to the World Health Organization, the annual global savings are estimated to be more than $1 billion. Every 26 days the U.S. health system recoups its contributions made to the smallpox eradication program.

Polio eradication is an early milestone in the new Global Vaccine Action Plan, also adopted at the World Health Assembly this week, which has the potential to avert 24 million to 26 million deaths and generate billions of dollars in economic benefit. Failure to eradicate polio will result in greater costs for health systems over the long term, thus jeopardizing countries’ abilities to meet broader immunization goals.

We have a cost-effective, proven solution that works — vaccines. We encourage leaders, both in the United States and abroad, to stay on course and get the job done and wipe polio off the globe once and for all.

Timothy E. Wirth, a former Democratic Congressman and Senator from Colorado, is president of the United Nations Foundation. Samuel A. Worthington is president and CEO of InterAction.