While Americans are preparing for flu season, we shouldn't forget global diseases that are less visible -- yet far more devastating -- that require the world's attention.
To many Americans, diseases like polio and measles may seem to be threats of the past. But they continue to cripple and kill children in other parts of the world.
World Polio Day, which we recognize on October 24, is a reminder that even though this disease is gone from the United States, it must not be forgotten.
Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan have not yet been able to stop the transmission of polio. This has far-reaching consequences for all countries, including the United States. As Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has said, "Polio anywhere in the world is a risk everywhere in the world."
Polio is a highly contagious disease that moves quickly and does not respect borders. Countries, especially those with a low immunization level against polio, are at risk of importing the disease. A recent outbreak in the Horn of Africa is a sobering reminder that until polio is eradicated, pockets of outbreaks will continue to paralyze children for life.
We must put an end to this devastating disease.
The good news is that we are in the final stages of this effort. Since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988, the number of polio cases has decreased by more than 99 percent -- from more than 350,000 cases a year to just 223 last year.
The United States government (including CDC and the U.S. Agency for International Development), Rotary members and many other U.S. citizens have provided support, expertise, and significant resources to make this progress possible.
U.S. leadership will continue to be essential during the final stretches of polio eradication, which will require eliminating the disease from some of the most difficult environments in the world.
In some of the final communities battling polio, false rumors about the polio vaccine persist. And in Nigeria and Pakistan, dozens of health workers, including polio workers, have been killed or injured since last December. At the same time, we have to address new challenges that arise, such as outbreaks in the Horn of Africa and, most recently, suspected cases in Syria. Alas, the number of polio cases in the world this year is higher than last year's total.
While the last mile may be the hardest, eradicating polio is both possible and necessary.
As we have seen in the response to the outbreak in Somalia and neighboring countries, the global polio program has a large and sophisticated infrastructure to fight this disease.
GPEI has developed a comprehensive plan to finish the job against polio in the coming years. Implementing this plan is estimated to cost $5.5 billion, and already more than $4 billion has been pledged to the effort. Now donor governments and organizations must step up to fulfill their pledges and fill the funding gap.
Success will also require political will at all levels of government in those countries affected by polio, as well as support from countries and citizens around the world.
Additionally, we need to strengthen routine immunization systems in countries where they are weak. Increasing the level of vaccination coverage among children is essential to stopping polio from returning to countries where it has been eliminated. A fundamental objective of the new comprehensive plan is to help build stronger systems for the delivery of other lifesaving vaccines.
Finally, we must support the health workers who provide children with the vaccines that protect them from death or lifelong paralysis. These workers in the field face challenges -- and some even risk their lives -- to protect children. Their work is nothing short of heroic.
GPEI's success -- the massive drop in polio cases around the world -- should not reduce our sense of urgency and motivation to focus on the remaining pockets of polio. With only a few hundred cases of polio each year, some may question why we need to go further -- especially as other diseases ravage millions.
The answer: Failure to eradicate polio means that polio will likely come back with a vengeance, robbing far more children of healthy lives. Failure to eradicate polio will squander a huge global investment of time, money, and other resources. And failure to eradicate polio will call into question the global community's ability to eradicate other diseases. If you care about eliminating measles, malaria or HIV, then you should care about eliminating polio.
There is hope. We have never been closer to ending polio. Polio eradication must continue to be a priority. We must seize this moment to end this crippling disease and show the world that we can achieve big global health victories.
Ambassador John E. Lange (Ret.) is Senior Fellow for Global Health Diplomacy at the United Nations Foundation. He is also co-chair of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative's Polio Partners Group.