By Jenny Da Rin, Head of Health, AusAID
Today is World Polio Day.
My aunt was struck down by polio as a child. While she survived and is now a grand old lady, many children did not. Polio is a dreaded, highly infectious disease that can cause paralysis, breathing difficulties and even death. It has killed and maimed children all over the world for centuries.
By the time I was growing up in Sydney in the 60s and 70s a polio vaccine had been introduced and I was lucky enough to receive it. However, one of the kids in my street was not so lucky. He contracted polio and was partly paralysed and permanently disabled. Like so many children who survived, he wore calipers.
Polio was feared all over the world, in rich and poor countries. For example, in the first half of the 20th Century the US suffered several epidemics—hitting a peak in 1952 with almost 60,000 cases. Polio cases in Australia peaked at 4500 in 1938, and there were at least 40 cases of paralysis-causing polio reported each year until 1963.
Today, countries like Australia and the US are free from polio thanks to the development of cheap and effective vaccines, and the vision and efforts of community leaders and governments to eliminate the disease. So successful have they been that 99 per cent of the task has been completed.
There is just one per cent to go.
Eradication is within our reach.
At last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, our Prime Minister announced a new Australian contribution of $50 million over four years for polio.
Australia’s support through AusAID is helping to purchase vaccines, monitor outbreaks, and respond when and where needed.
The disease remains endemic in only three countries—Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. In February 2012, the world’s second largest country, India, announced that it was polio-free, having reported zero cases in the previous year.
To finish the job requires leadership, finance and stronger national immunisation programs.
In September at the UN General Assembly, I sat in the audience and listened as leaders recommitted to eliminate polio.
The heads of state from Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan, shoulder to shoulder with the United Nations and representatives of international and non-government organisations and donors, recognised that we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finish the job and benefit generations to come.
Our Prime Minister was amongst those leaders.
She said that for as long as polio exists anywhere, our humanity is diminished
This is because some children in Asia and Africa still suffer for the want of cheap and effective vaccinations that Australian children have had for decades.
And our humanity demands we remain committed to the end.
Today on World Polio Day 2012 we are closer than ever to getting that job done.
About the author: Jenny Da Rin
Jenny Da Rin is responsible for education and health at AusAID.