Despite Covid-19​​​​​​​​​​​​​, ending polio is still a priority

We must not drop the ball on the progress made to eliminate the scourge

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If modern history has taught us anything about eradicating a debilitating virus, it is that working together gives organisations and countries the strength and resources to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges.

In 1988, a partnership of governments, institutions and other stakeholders, called the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, was launched with the goal to eradicate polio. In the 32 years since, great strides have been made to contain this highly infectious disease for which there is no cure and that paralyses children under 5 years of age.

Today, children across the world have benefited from countries and philanthropic organisations working together towards this collective goal.

The UAE has been at the forefront of these efforts to see the eradication of the disease. Despite challenges posed by Covid-19, in Pakistan this year, 12 million children received polio vaccinations in a campaign led by the UAE, which was the first country to resume its vaccination programme during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, as Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said on Saturday: "Never has the world been closer to eradicating polio. Today, wild polio can only be found in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, who since 2011 has pledged more than $250m to support efforts to eradicate polio, thanked frontline heroes "who continue to serve their communities, despite the challenges of Covid-19". Between July and September this year, 28 million vaccine doses were delivered and over 16m children were reached by the Emirates Polio Campaign.

To this end, more than $2.6 billion was raised last year when Sheikh Mohamed hosted the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in Abu Dhabi. But while polio cases dropped by more than 99 per cent since 1988 – from an estimated 350,000 cases to 22 reported cases in 2017 – work still remains to ensure that no child anywhere suffers from a disease that can be prevented by repeat doses of immunisation drops.

Through the efforts to end polio, we have seen how global collaborations in the field of medicine, disease surveillance and capacity-building of immunisation programmes are crucial for citizens in not just a handful of countries, but across the world.

This year more than any other, these collaborative efforts to eradicate polio – and previously smallpox, an infectious disease that once claimed 1m lives a year – have lent an invaluable framework on how to unite to find a vaccine for Covid-19.

There is no doubt that global partnerships strengthen systems. They build trust and widen a network of stakeholders – all factors that play a critical role in inching closer to eradicating diseases or finding a vaccine – as in the case of the prevailing pandemic.

In January 2011, a huge milestone was met when polio was eradicated in a country as large and populous as India. And as recently as August 25, Nigeria was declared polio free. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed it as 'one of the greatest achievements in public health history'. This was all the more remarkable because Nigeria accounted for more than half of all global polio cases just eight years ago.

As Bill Gates wrote in a piece published by The National: "Every child deserves a chance to have a productive life, no matter where they are born."

As World Polio Day is marked, countries must not drop the ball on the progress that has been made to end this scourge. World leaders must resolve to see the eradication through so that no child's future is marred for want of vaccination and the next generation can live healthy, dignified lives – polio free.