Eradicating Polio: How a $5.5 Billion Investment Could Pay Huge Dividends

04/26/2013 01:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013

A person could do a lot with $5.5 billion in liquid assets.

With $5.5 billion, you could buy yourself 2,873 new Bugattis. Or, you could buy a gorgeous island off the coast of Thailand -- 34 times. If you want to be more practical, you could take your $5.5 billion and feed a family of four for 731,480 years (alternatively, it could feed 731,480 families for one year). You could probably bail out a few countries in debt -- $5.5 billion is more than the annual GDP of over 40 countries, including Suriname, Barbados, Eritrea, Liberia, Belize, and Somalia.

It's also the amount of money that global health officials want so they can enact a six-year plan to wipe polio off the face of the earth.

On Thursday, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) announced its strategy for creating a polio-free world by 2018. World leaders and philanthropists seem to be on board with the plan -- three-quarters of the funds needed have already been pledged to the cause.

No surprise that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is down with the plan. Global health has been a major initiative for the philanthropy group; they've committed $1.8 billion to the polio plan.

But that's not quite enough. GPEI, presenting at the Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi, called upon other donors to cough up the remaining $1.5 billion.

With so much money at stake, the question must be asked: Is it worth it?

Polio has already all but disappeared. Last year, only 223 cases were confirmed worldwide. This year, so far only 19 cases have been reported in only three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. India has had polio as recently as 2011, but it is now officially celebrating its two-year anniversary of being polio-free.

In other words, polio already is dying out, and these days it barely registers on the radar of public awareness. After all, the new strain of bird flu in China has killed 23 people the past month alone.

But it is worth it.

In some ways, attempting to make the globe polio-free seems like an act of hubris, a way for scientists, public health officials, philanthropists and humans in general, to assert dominance over the planet. After all, we've only managed to completely eradicate two diseases so far -- smallpox and rinderpest -- and these successes are brought up constantly in scientific literature.

Rinderpest is kind of an outlier. A viral infection mostly affecting cattle, it has dwindled year by year since the early 1900s. The last confirmed case of the virus was reported in 2001, in Kenya, and it took 10 years for the World Health Organization (WHO) to finally announce that rinderpest was officially eradicated. The lack of interest shown toward this issue by the WHO, although a fairly slow-moving organization, tells us something about its effects on global health.

Smallpox, on the other hand, was an epidemiological tragedy. By the mid-18th century, it had reached every part of the world except Australia. Through World War II and into the 1950s, there were still something in the neighborhood of 50 million cases of the disease every year.

In the next decade, public health officials stepped up their game. From 1967 to 1979, the WHO mobilized an international effort to eradicate smallpox by establishing the "Smallpox Eradication Unit." The unit ran a $300 million dollar program that worked -- in 1980, the World Health Assembly announced that smallpox was officially eradicated.

Here's the kicker.

Besides saving millions of at-risk people worldwide from a terrifying, crippling, and potentially deadly disease, the economics were sound: It is estimated that the United States saves $1 billion annually in health care costs by not having to treat patients with smallpox.

Talk about a good investment -- the U.S. committed only $23 million to the program and has reaped an estimated $22 billion in reward.

Back to polio: Can we expect a similar return on eradication for this disease? Well, a 2010 analysis found that if we could rid the earth of polio by the year 2015, the net benefit from "reduced treatment costs" and" productivity gains" would be about $2 billion a year through 2035. And of course, we could prevent about 8 million cases of life-long polio paralysis.

While it may not be as financially sound as the smallpox initiative, eradicating polio -- at least in the eyes of most public health experts -- is cost effective, and wise.

And if you think that just because polio numbers seem to be going down by themselves (650 in 2011, 223 in 2012), well, think again. All this means is that, as the PGEI stated, we have a "narrow window of opportunity to seize on that progress and stop all poliovirus transmission before polio-free countries become re-infected."

We've had the polio vaccine for 60 years; it's time to put on the finishing touches.

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