The Prime Minister held a press conference today in Perth, Australia with Australia’s Prime Minister Gillard, Nigeria’s President Jonathan, Canada’s Prime Minister Harper and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani on the issue of eradicating polio.
Today, for the vast majority of countries polio has been eliminated and the harrowing image of children in iron lungs banished to the past. Today, there are eight million people who would otherwise be paralysed now walking because of polio vaccination. Annual infection rates have fallen over the second half of the century from 350,000 to around 1,000. We are in sight of the great goal of eradicating polio. There are now just four countries where polio transmission has never been stopped: that’s India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But in India they haven’t had a case since January of this year.
But for all this progress, we haven’t quite finished the job and the truth is that nearly eradicated is just not good enough. Why? Well, what can be more of a moral imperative than stopping children dying from diseases that we have in our power to prevent? And when we have the vaccines and the tools to save the lives, there can be no excuse to put this off until tomorrow. Because while we are waiting, children are dying and that isn’t acceptable.
And if that isn’t enough of a reason, just consider this: polio is a highly contagious disease. A single person with polio can infect hundreds before it’s even been identified. So if we fail to get rid of polio completely, we run the risk that the disease will spread back to countries where it has been eliminated. And that is not just some theoretical risk. For example, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad were once all free of polio but have now seen cases re-emerge. Put simply: as long as one child remains at risk, all children remain at risk and that isn’t a risk we can take.
In January, the UK pledged a further £40 million of matched funding, doubling our contribution over this year and next, and bringing our total contribution since the inception of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to £540 million. We challenged others to match our extra funding with £5 for every extra pound, and that target has already been more than exceeded in the first year.
Britain is also the first ever G20 country to set out a clear plan to hit the UN 0.7 per cent aid target from 2013. I know in the long term we have to help countries not just by giving them money; no country has ever pulled itself out of poverty through aid alone. But few ideas are more powerful than the eradication of human disease. Just as people now live free from the fear of smallpox, so a polio-free world is within our grasp. What is missing is the political will to see it through. So in this week that marked World Polio Day, let us resolve to finish the job and let us eradicate polio once and for all.