Thirty years ago, the polio virus was rampant in more than 120 countries, responsible for the paralysis of about 350,000 people each year. Today, there are only 12 documented cases of the disease in just two nations — and, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this once-prevalent illness may soon be wiped off the face of the planet.
Speaking at Rotary International’s World Polio Day event on Tuesday, which was co-hosted by the Gates Foundation, Dr. Jay Wenger, the director of the foundation’s polio eradication program, said humanity had successfully reached “the endgame of polio eradication.”
“We are closer than ever, and we’re optimistic that we can see the end of wild poliovirus disease by as early as this year or next,” Wenger said.
To mark World Polio Day, Rotary International and the Gates Foundation roped in WWE star John Cena to spread the word about polio eradication efforts.
Melinda Gates urged people to donate to the cause, promising to triple any donation coming in.
Rotary and the Gates Foundation have both contributed enormously to the global fight to eradicate polio, which has centered primarily on the dissemination of safe and effective oral vaccines to even the most remote corners of the globe.
The Gates Foundation has invested almost $3 billion in this effort, a spokeswoman told CNBC. Rotary, which launched the world’s first global initiative to end polio in 1985, has contributed nearly $2 billion. With the support of governments and other organizations, the Gates Foundation and Rotary have helped vaccinate 2.5 billion children in 122 countries since the 1980s.
It’s an initiative that’s been hugely successful.
“We’ve gone from 40 cases an hour back in 1988 to just 40 cases in all of 2016,” Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, said in June.
When India announced in 2014 that it was polio-free, Bill Gates wrote in a Hindustan Times op-ed that the country’s “success in eradicating polio is the greatest global health achievement I have ever witnessed.”
“India may be the hardest planet to vaccinate every child. The country has some of the most densely populated urban areas in the world making it a challenge to track children polio workers have immunised,” Gates said. “[But] India was up to the challenge with more than two million vaccinators reaching more than 170 million children with the vaccine.”
A spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation told HuffPost that once the last case of polio is seen globally, the world will need to go three years without a single additional case before the virus can be declared truly eradicated. This means that global efforts must continue with vigilance to keep the virus at bay.
In this year’s Gates Foundation annual letter, published in February, Gates echoed Wenger’s comments in saying that the end of polio was within sight.
“It’s thrilling to be nearing the day when no children will be crippled by polio,” he wrote. “We’re often asked why we’re making such a big effort on polio if our priority is to save lives. The answer is, ending polio will save lives — through the magic of zero. When polio is eradicated, the world can dedicate polio funds to improving child health, and the lessons from polio will lead to better immunization systems for other diseases.”
He said he envisions a future in which malaria will be no more and “no one will die from AIDS.”
“Few people will get [tuberculosis]. Children everywhere will be well nourished. And the death of a child in the developing world will be just as rare as the death of a child in the rich world,” Gates wrote. “We can’t put a date on these events, and we don’t know the sequence, but we’re confident of one thing: The future will surprise the pessimists.”
Clarification: This article has been amended to more accurately describe the conditions under which polio may be considered “eradicated.” Comments from the Gates Foundation have also been included.