At the time, few could have realised the significance of the commitment made by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, President of the UAE, when he invited the former US president Jimmy Carter to the UAE for the first time.
Among the topics for discussion on that July day in 1990 was an initiative by the 39th president of the United States to free the world of a little known parasitic disease that was causing untold misery and blindness across large parts of Africa.
Sheikh Zayed responded to the crisis with a substantial donation to the Carter Centre for combating Guinea-worm disease – the start of three decades of giving by the UAE that has transformed the fight against plagues that have claimed the lives of millions of some of the world’s most disadvantaged peoples.
Just how successful these efforts have been can be judged by the title of conference to be held in Abu Dhabi on November 15. Reaching the Last Mile: Mobilising Together to Eliminate Infectious Diseases is a global health forum that looks forward to the day when the world is freed from their grip.
Hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the summit will gather hundreds of world experts and organisations in the capital, including the Carter Centre, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, another major player in the battle against diseases like polio and malaria. The forum recognises the UAE’s long standing commitment to reducing and eliminating preventable disease.
Doubtless, those taking part will also hear of the progress made against Guinea-worm disease, a parasitic illness that can cripple its suffers for months and was once widespread across 20 sub-Saharan African countries.
Today, over 27 years after it was first brought to Sheikh Zayed’s attention, Guinea-worm disease has been tamed, thanks to better health care and water purification measures to filter out the microscopic worms that grow inside the bodies of unfortunate victims until bursting through their skin.
In 1990, around 900,000 cases of Guinea-worm disease were recorded in counties like Chad, Senegal and the Central African Republic. The recorded total for 2017 up to the end of July is nine, all from a handful of villages in Chad.
The hope now is that the Guinea-worm parasite, once deprived of its human host, can soon be driven from the planet, just as smallpox was by the 1970s. At the same time, other parasitic diseases like river blindness, and lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis for its disfiguring effect on the human body, still cause incalculable hardship and suffering.
Referring to smallpox, former President Carter says: “Only one human disease has ever been eradicated, but with the strong support and cooperation of international partners, together we can aim higher. Guinea worm disease and polio are close to being eradicated, and other diseases are achieving regional elimination.”
The Abu Dhabi meeting, he says, is a signal of a renewed determination by leaders like Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and the global health community, “to maintain the momentum and help address human suffering everywhere".
Like his father, Sheikh Mohammed has been generous in these battles, personally contributing US$167 million to the fight against polio and another $US30 million to the eradication of malaria.
The Abu Dhabi forum "builds on the UAE leadership’s 30-year efforts to permanently wipe out several deadly global diseases,” said Mohamed Mubarak Al Mazrouei, Undersecretary of the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi.
The driving force, he adds, is the conviction of Sheikh Mohammed that "no human should suffer from a preventable disease, and that investment in disease eradication is crucial to global development".
The philanthropy and determination of the Crown Prince, matched with the continuing work of the Carter Centre, and Bill and Melinda Gates, the world’s wealthiest man and his wife, has certainly energized what once seem to be a hopeless cause.
Mr Gates believes the world now has a real chance of eliminating these diseases. “I hope that Reaching the Last Mile will help accelerate the fight against these preventable diseases, giving more of the world’s poorest people the chance to live healthy and productive lives,” he says.
In the case of polio, victory is tantalisingly close.
Just months before Sheikh Zayed and President Carter met in 1991, a single outbreak of the disease in China infected around 10,000 people. Worldwide, polio was found in over 120 countries, with around 350,000 cases.
Fast-forward to 2017, and polio is just a bad memory in most of the world. The disease that once killed or crippled millions exists in just four countries where the fight is handicapped by political turmoil. Even so, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria - where the disease has sadly returned as a result of the continuing civil war – just 37 cases were reported last year.
The same cannot be said of malaria. There is good progress, but the last mile here is still some distance away. In 1990, the best estimate was 120 million cases annually and around 800,000 deaths in Africa alone.
Last year, the number of cases was put at 214 million, but 438,000 deaths worldwide; a huge toll, but much reduced. Since the peak of the disease in 2004, with 1.8 million deaths worldwide, the number has fallen by around seven per cent each year.
These figures need to be treated with caution though. The reporting of malaria cases is thought to be unreliable. The World Health Organisation believes that while only 117,000 deaths were recorded in 2009, the true figure was closer to 800,000. Most deaths are of children.
By meeting in Abu Dhabi, those government officials, heads of international development organizations and philanthropic organizations, global health experts, and private sector representatives collectively hope to take full advantage of the UAE’s long standing commitment to reduce the incidence of these diseases and eventually eliminate them.
It is also a chance to recognise the efforts of the tens of thousands who work in the front line of the worst affected countries and who have devoted their lives to prevention and treatment.
For them, reaching the last mile on a journey that was started in meeting with Sheikh Zayed over 25 years ago, is something that cannot come soon enough.