MDG 2010 - Session summary 1

Unfinished business: reaching the MDGs with lessons learned from global polio eradication

By Maude Froberg in New York, photo Jun Shimizu

Although the world has never been so close to the eradication by 99 per cent of the way there, wild poliovirus outbreaks remind us that “diligent support is required”.

To promote the lifesaving power of vaccination and the key lessons from polio eradication, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), GAVI Alliance, Rotary International, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, organized a side event in the margins of the MDG Summit.

Panelists speaking at the side event: “Unfinished Business: reaching the MDGs with lessons learned from global polio eradication” on 20 September highlighted the tremendous strides in the global battle against polio, but warned that it is far from over.

The IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta delivered opening remarks, sharing his own childhood experience of carrying his polio-stricken friend to school, and pointing to the challenges remaining.

“We are almost there, but we need to scale up our efforts” he said and called for increased geographical outreach, social and political inclusion of vulnerable groups, such as migrants, and support to volunteers to walk the last mile to reach remote communities.

The key note speaker, Dr. Margret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), stressed the importance of partnerships, strategies and technology, as the key to get rid of the virus once and for all. She also noted the difficulties of reaching out to counties in conflict and distress.

“We need your [IFRC's] independent assessment, it lends credibility to the work on the ground. The UN cannot reach the goal on health alone,” she said with a clear address to the IFRC, whose volunteers not only reach every household, moving from door to door, but in addition help bring children to health facilities, where education on the importance of immunization can take place.

Yet to walk the last mile can prove tremendously difficult

“In the efforts of reaching every last child, as in the most inaccessible villages, efforts entail several days travels on boat and motorbike, and often the health workers put themselves at risk,” Dr Chan said. “Sometimes micro-planning is elevated to an art!”

Dr Nicholas Alipui, Director of Programmes, UNICEF, agreed.

“Universal coverage is needed, no one is free from the plight of polio.”

On that note, he passed on the lesson that ownership of programmes is crucial, and so is to move away from donorship to national leadership.

Nigeria has long remained one of the four countries where the spread of wild polio virus had never been interrupted. But during the past year, change has taken place.

“Since 2009, the war against polio is working in our favor, leading to the current dramatic gains that have firmly placed Nigeria on the verge of interruption and eradication. Support came from the Gates Foundation, but is also a result of efforts on all levels,” explained Dr Muhammad Ali Pate, Executive Director and CEO, Nigeria National Primary Health Care Development Agency.

Another challenge is the gap in funding

Ms Joelle Tanguy, Managing Director of External Relations for the GAVI Alliance, which finances vaccines in the world’s poorest countries, faces a funding challenge of 4.3 billion US dollars over the next six years. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative alone needs 1.3 billion US dollars from 2010-2012.

“There is both an unease and excitement, as the clock is ticking. A lot is at stake, but if we can attract new resources, we will feel emboldened, and success will breed success.”

Ambassador John E. Lange (Ret.), Senior Program Officer for Developing-Country Policy & Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, addressed the danger of stopping too soon.

“If not finished, resurrection will occur, and it will set a terrible precedent. We must try to get new donors and new funds,” he said, while underlining that the Gates Foundation has spent more than 800 million US dollars during the last decade in the fight against polio.

For Ms Fatima Gailani, President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, the fight against polio is still ongoing.

“Unfortunately, Afghanistan belongs to the one percent, where polio still exists. Not a week goes by without me being approached by parents whose children are suffering from polio. If only I know what to do, they say.”

“As an auxiliary to the government, namely the Ministry of Health, the clinics of Afghan Red Crescent have during war after war provided service to people in need, but I also see that all stakeholders in the fight against polio need to be better organized. We need to be more targeted.”

On that lesson learned, Mr James Lacy, Chair of the Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force for the US, Rotary International, pointed to international partnerships, with government and non-government organizations, as important tools for people to help themselves.

“Twenty years ago, Rotary made a promise to eradicate polio from the planet, and shortly afterwards the World Health Organization (WHO) joined our efforts. While we have come very close, with only a few small pockets in four countries still with polio, coming close is not enough.”

“All in all, to date we have raised more than $900 million for polio eradication, and are determined to continue to do so through our financial and political commitment to eradicate polio.”