CAPE TOWN – A world in which our children and their children grow up free from the threat of polio and other preventable diseases is a dream that everyone shares. But, unlike most dreams, this one is achievable. Over my lifetime, I have been fortunate to witness the extraordinary impact that vaccines have had on protecting children from illness and death – especially in the developing world.
Vaccines have always had a special meaning for me. As a young child in South Africa, I nearly died from polio. Back then – in the early 1930’s – there was no vaccine for this highly infectious disease. With good reason, parents everywhere were terrified that poliovirus would reach their doorstep – like a plague – striking a child and causing irreversible paralysis in a matter of hours, or, worse, death in a matter of days.
The doctors told my parents that little could be done for me, so my father prepared for my funeral. Fortunately, I recovered, except for the use of my right hand. I have gone on to live a wonderful life, but the paralysis in my hand is a daily reminder of why we must urgently pursue the eradication of polio and ensure that all children have access to the vaccines that they need.
Just a quarter-century ago, polio was endemic in 125 countries – and paralyzed more than 1,000 children every day. Today, we have the fewest cases of polio, in fewer countries, than ever before. Last year, India – once thought to be the most difficult place to stop polio – was declared polio-free. In the remaining three countries where polio has not yet been eliminated – Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria – there were just 223 reported cases in 2012. This makes me optimistic that I will live to celebrate the day when this dreaded disease is stamped out forever.
The remarkable progress that we have made so far is the result of a sustained global effort, supported by significant resources committed by donor and affected countries, millions of dedicated health workers, and sustained political will to get the job done. But we must finish what we have started. Until the polio virus is eradicated everywhere, no country is safe from reinfection.
At the same time, we must make the most of scientific advances over the last half-century, which have made vaccines for other preventable diseases the most powerful and cost-effective health-care investment that currently exists. Vaccines are inexpensive and easy to deliver, and they protect children for a lifetime. Vaccines have already eradicated smallpox, and dramatically reduced child deaths and disease associated with measles, diphtheria, and tetanus.
Yet, sadly, a child still dies every 20 seconds from diseases like pneumonia, which can be prevented by a vaccine. Most of them live in poor and remote communities that still lack access to the basic vaccines that are universally available in better-off countries. This is one of the reasons why a child born in a high-income country is 18 times less likely than a child born in a low-income country to die before reaching the age of five.
Fortunately, the world is taking action. This week in Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi – in partnership with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Bill Gates – is hosting the world’s first global summit dedicated to ensuring that all children everywhere have access to the full benefits of vaccines.
The vaccine summit builds on a commitment last year by nearly 200 countries to eradicate polio, develop new and improved vaccines at affordable prices, and deliver them to every child by 2020.
Ending polio will be a key milestone on the path to realizing this vision. And the summit in Abu Dhabi has provided a clear plan to get there by 2018 – a strategy that complements other efforts to raise immunization coverage for diseases such as measles, pneumonia, and rotavirus. Strengthening routine immunization will protect our gains against polio and enable us to reach the most vulnerable children in the hardest-to-reach and most underserved communities.
Having grown up in a country where nearly one in four children infected with polio died from the disease, my heart soars when I imagine a world in which all families have access to lifesaving vaccines, freeing them from the burden of preventable death and disease. Now we need funds, commitment, and the resolve to implement the plan presented in Abu Dhabi.
When it comes to the health of our children, there must be no distance between rich and poor, and no distinctions among communities. Following through on polio eradication by extending the reach of vaccines to all children who need them is an opportunity for all of us to stand together on behalf of our global community. We must do it. And when we succeed, it will be a triumph for humanity.
Desmond Tutu is Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.