UAE pushes for political commitment to eradicate preventable infectious diseases

The UAE is among a handful of countries that consistently meets the United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on overseas aid

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - December 6, 2015: HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (R), receives Bill Gates, Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (L), prior to the Heroes of Polio Eradication (HOPE) awards ceremony at Al Mamoura.  
( Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi ) *** Local Caption ***  20151206RC_C141008.jpg
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The delegates at the UN General Assembly have diverse priorities. Some are here to sign peace deals, some to agree anti-terrorism policies. Others have no specific goal. But not Dr Maha Barakat, the head of Health Authority – Abu Dhabi (Haad).

Haad is involved in all matters related to health care in the capital. However, Dr Barakat wears another hat, representing the UAE’s support of global health policies. In New York, Dr Barakat was in New York lobbying for Reach the Last Mile, an initiative to end preventable infectious diseases such as malaria, guinea worm and polio and the UAE is urging countries and organisations to put political weight behind eradicating these diseases.

The UAE has a long history of humanitarianism and charity. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has ranked the UAE top foreign donor for ODA — official development assistance — for several years. The UAE is also among a handful of countries that consistently meets the United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on overseas aid.

"You have objective data showing the efforts the UAE has taken and this has spanned decades." said Dr Barakat. As far back as 1990 the UAE's founding father Sheikh Zayed was giving grants to the Carter Centre, including $5.7 million to help eliminate guinea worm. In 1986, there were 3.5 million cases of guinea worm in 21 countries. Today, there are only 10 cases in one country, Chad - a 99.99 per cent reduction, says Dr Barakat proudly.

But there is more to be done. The UAE has given more than over $20 million to eliminate guinea worm, but Dr Barakat says the priorities now are malaria and polio, which "kill or cause disability when they don’t kill."  The UAE has given more than $30 million to prevent malaria and more than $164 million to tackle polio.

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed has not only continued with this tradition of giving targeted strategically — $167 million towards eliminating polio, for example — but his personal engagement acts as a catalyst for other benefactors.

At the first global vaccine summit in 2013, $4 billion was pledged, which Dr Barakat says was largely due to "the motivational leadership of Sheikh Mohamed and Bill Gates" — leading by example and encouraging others to contribute. The Countdown to Zero in Atlanta last June raised $1.2 billion.

Dr Barakat highlighted three strategic priorities, the first of which is to "ensure that the diseases are high up on the political agenda".

And so Dr Barakat and other global health advocates choose UN week to lobby for maintaining political engagement.

"There is disease and there is preventable disease. Two million children die of preventable disease a year. no one should die of preventable disease," Dr Barakat said.

The second strategic priority is "maintain your gains. It isn’t enough to focus on the three countries that still have polio, we have to make sure the rest of the world doesn’t get it".

As for the third priority, it is the all important funding. "For malaria, we may need $6 billion by 2020 to push the last stage of elimination," said Dr Barakat.

Abu Dhabi is the venue for the next global health forum on November 15, hosted by Sheikh Mohammed, with Bill Gates and former US president Jimmy Carter and several world leaders due to attend. This is in line also with the Roll Back Malaria partnership, the global framework for co-ordinated action to eliminate malaria, which remains prevalent in 91 countries.

One focal point for the forum will be polio. "There were 37 cases of polio in 2016, in only three countries, and yet if we suddenly stopped our efforts to eliminate polio, instead of 37 cases, there will be 200,000 all over the world every year. So we cannot just stop, it really is the last mile and we have to finish it together," Dr Barakat said. To get from 37 to zero will take more effort and more funding. The forum hopes to achieve both -- not least because it is line with Sustainable Development Goal No 3: good health and wellbeing for all.

Titled Reaching the Last Mile, the forum "will showcase all sorts of examples of how humanitarian efforts have helped reduce the burden of these infectious diseases and a call to action for funding so we reach the last mile," said Dr Barakat. "We hope to walk the last mile hand in hand with the international community."