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UNICEF and Canada: On the brink of polio eradication

By Peter Crowley, Head of Polio, UNICEF

One of the worst polio attacks ever recorded in the world - in terms of percentage of people at risk who became infected - happened in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut.

Back in 1949 polio entered Canada through Churchill Manitoba, the main Arctic port town on Hudson Bay. The virus spread through northern communities and of the 275 people at risk of infection in the small town 50 per cent developed the disease, 12 per cent became paralyzed and 5 per cent died.

A polio outbreak of this scale anywhere in Canada is virtually impossible today. From a peak of 76,000 reported cases of polio-related paralysis in the Western Hemisphere in 1955, the disease was completely eradicated from the region in 1991. This was made possible through the use of a cheap, easily administered polio vaccine and routine immunization.

But around the world many children are still at risk of contracting polio.  

Polio remains endemic in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan so the virus continues to circulate putting the poorest, most vulnerable children in the world at risk. In Syria, Iraq and Somalia conflict has prevented some children from receiving routine vaccinations and the polio virus is still infecting and crippling children.  In some countries communities do not accept or understand the benefits of vaccines resulting in low routine vaccination rates and polio spreading.  

Nearly three decades ago governments and global health leaders including UNICEF, the World Health Organization and Rotary International created the The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership to achieve a polio-free world. 

The Government of Canada has provided unwavering support for the initiative resulting in immense gains for children’s health. Over the last 30 years the number of polio cases worldwide has decreased 99% from over 350,000 per year to around 300. Earlier this year India – which once recorded 200,000 cases of paralysis per year and was once considered the most difficult place in the world to eliminate polio – was certified polio-free.

Canada also supports the courageous health workers risking their lives on the frontline, immunizing children in insecure regions and braving communities suspicious of vaccine safety.

Right now the mechanisms exist to respond to polio outbreaks faster and more effectively than ever before, there is proof the virus is slowing down and efforts are on track to strengthen routine immunization in countries with some of the weakest health systems in the world.

In addition to these huge accomplishments Canadian investments in polio eradication have provided broader benefits to newborn and child health. UNICEF and partners can clearly show other governments as well as the private sector how immunization transforms the lives of women and children and how critical these investments are in ending preventable deaths and saving lives, and how this contributes to the growth and development of countries.

But these tremendous advances also increase the urgency to act now and seize the opportunity to stop all transmission of polio before countries become re-infected.

A year ago leaders gathered in Abu Dhabi for the Global Vaccine Summit where a comprehensive six-year plan was established to achieve polio eradication by 2018. Once again Canada showed its leadership role with a multi-year investment for the final push to put an end to this disease once and for all.

At the Prime Minister’s summit on maternal, newborn and child health next month Canada is well positioned to sustain its unwavering support to reach the most vulnerable and use its leadership and influence to encourage other governments to invest in efforts to improve child health including the eradication of polio.

We are on the brink of a historical feat for children’s health globally.