A few weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Bill Gates deliver the 2013 Richard Dimbleby Lecture entitled The Impatient Optimist where he spoke about the end of polio.
Since I first made a commitment to take action to end extreme poverty the end of polio campaign has captured my imagination. The short version of the end of polio story is that what was once a crippling disease all over the world is now only endemic in three countries. Polio has been reduced by 99% and eradicating the disease is possible within my lifetime. The thought that the second disease in all of human history to be eradicated is possible within my lifetime is intriguing, but knowing that I can take part in this story is exhilarating.
The long story of polio begins, as Gates explained, in ancient carvings of people with withered limbs, walking with canes- evidence that the disease has lasted for centuries. An epidemic of polio in America in the 1950s sparked rumours that ice cream was the cause of death of hundreds of children. Images of children in iron lungs give evidence of a disease that has almost erased itself from Western memory.
But the story of polio carries on beyond its eradication in the Western world. Last month India celebrated one year without a case of polio. India was thought to be one of the most difficult countries in which to tackle polio partly because few children were brought for regular check-ups and were therefore unlikely to receive the vaccine. The vaccinations had to go out to the people. This task was carried out by one of the primary heroes in the end of polio story, the Rotarians, who selflessly travelled miles on foot carrying the vaccine and risking their personal health and safety to ensure that children throughout India would receive the vaccine.
Gates spoke about the role that innovation has had in this story. Innovations in vaccines and mapping have been turning points in the effectiveness and efficiency of vaccinating children worldwide.
And now we stand at the climax of the story. The tipping point. Gates explained that it is a myth that we can maintain polio at these low levels. It is too easy to spread. Now is the time for a final push to see the disease completely eradicated and go the way of smallpox.
This is a story that excites me and that I want to be a part of. Will you join me? We can see polio and its devastating effects on the world’s poorest people be completely eradicated within our generation. To see how you can be part of this story visit the end of polio campaign.