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The Right Honourable Paul Martin (Yvonne Berg For The Globe and Mail)
The Right Honourable Paul Martin (Yvonne Berg For The Globe and Mail)

Paul Martin

Time to finish the job of eradicating polio Add to ...

Nearly 65 years ago, Canadian scientist Dr. Leone Farrell made a groundbreaking discovery that revolutionized our ability to fight one of the world’s most devastating diseases.

At the time, polio – once known as “the crippler” – paralyzed thousands of children every year and scientists were desperately searching for an effective vaccine. In 1952, U.S. scientist Dr. Jonas Salk seemed to have found an answer, but he didn’t have a way to produce enough of his vaccine for trials or large-scale distribution. It was Dr. Farrell’s breakthrough, the “Toronto Method,” that allowed for mass production of the vaccine and subsequent distribution to millions of children across North America.

While few may know of her work, Dr. Farrell’s research in many ways represents the beginning of Canada’s decades-long leadership in stopping the scourge of polio not only in Canada but everywhere in the world. Today, polio is close to becoming the second human disease ever eradicated, after smallpox. As we celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary this year, we should take great pride in Canada’s extraordinary role in this effort – a role that will remain key to soon ending polio for good.

I was just eight years old when polio paralyzed my throat. While I was fortunate enough to make a full recovery, others weren’t so lucky. At one point, there were so many cases spread across Canada that the Royal Air Force was deployed to deliver iron lungs, which helped children so severely paralyzed that they were unable to breathe on their own.

My father, who was Minister of National Health and Welfare during the 1950s and a polio survivor himself, knew how important it was for Dr. Salk’s vaccine to be distributed as quickly as possible. When the U.S. field trials were halted in 1955 because of a batch of defective vaccines, my father made the tough choice to continue vaccine field trials in Canada. He trusted that the vaccines, which were developed at Canada’s Connaught Laboratories (now Sanofi Pasteur), were safe and would save countless lives. His decision was crucial to maintaining public confidence in the vaccine and ultimately making it available to the rest of the world.

Over the next three decades, widespread use of Dr. Salk’s vaccine, as well as an oral vaccine developed in the 1960s, led to dramatic reductions in cases globally. Countries began to eliminate the disease entirely, and Canada saw its last case in 1979.

By the 1980s, eradicating polio seemed achievable, and in 1987 Canada made its first financial commitment to ending polio. The following year, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution that launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – a partnership today comprised of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Today, Canada remains one of the top donors to the polio program.

The support of countries such as Canada has helped drive the remarkable progress made against polio. When the GPEI was launched, polio paralyzed 40 children every hour across 125 countries; in 2016, there were less than 40 cases in the entire year and in just three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. India, once considered the most difficult place in the world to stop the disease, hasn’t had a single case of polio in more than six years.

There are many reasons to be optimistic that we’ll soon live in a polio-free world – but we haven’t finished the job just yet. The places where polio lingers are some of the most complex environments in the world, and getting to zero cases won’t be easy. We were reminded of this last summer when Nigeria reported that four children had been paralyzed by polio – Africa’s first new cases in two years.

Now, in order to send polio to the history books, the program needs an additional $1.5-billion (U.S.) in funding. This financing will allow all countries to keep up their disease surveillance so they can track and respond to any traces of the poliovirus. It will also ensure millions of dedicated health workers – the majority of whom are women – can continue travelling to the furthest corners of the world to reach children with polio vaccines. Indeed, through these efforts, countries will pave the way for the delivery of other health services, even after polio is gone.

A global pledging event taking place at the annual Rotary Convention in Atlanta this June will give donors the opportunity to meet this funding need, and Canada’s continued leadership and generosity at this moment will be essential.

Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada “will be a strong partner through to the end.” In this case. the end is something extraordinary – a world where no little girl or boy has to live in fear of this paralyzing disease, and a world that is better equipped to tackle other health challenges.

With generations of Canadians helping to lead the way, ending polio will show the world what we can accomplish together. It’s time to make history.

Paul Martin is a former prime minister of Canada.

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