Itzhak Perlman is an Israeli-American violinist, conductor, and pedagogue. Paul Martin is a former prime minister of Canada.
What do an Israeli-born classical violinist and a former prime minister of Canada have in common? If you are waiting for a punch line, you can stop.
The answer is: polio.
Having survived polio as children in Israel and Canada respectively, we know first-hand what this disease can mean. We were both fortunate to recover from the crippling virus and pursue successful careers doing what we love, in music and in public life.
You are lucky to live in a country that has eradicated polio. Canada was one of the first nations to eliminate this potentially fatal disease, which can cause paralysis and other debilitating symptoms.
Effective vaccines have made polio a receding memory in the developed world. Israel and Canada (and the rest of the Western Hemisphere) were deemed polio-free more than two decades ago. On the occasion of World Immunization Week, we are close to making history, as Africa is on the verge of becoming polio-free, with no new cases reported in Nigeria for the past eight months.
North Americans might be surprised to learn that polio not only still exists, but continues to infect and paralyze children in some parts of the world. This is despite the fact that the disease is completely vaccine-preventable.
Tragically, the children most at risk are the ones with the least hope of meaningful, productive lives once they are disabled. This is just so wrong.
Thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), launched by Rotary International, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and joined more recently by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – polio is more than 99 per cent gone from most of the world.
In 2014, fewer than 400 cases were reported worldwide, down from about 350,000 a year when the campaign began in 1988. Today, polio remains endemic in only three countries, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, although the virus can re-emerge in areas where it was previously stopped, including Israel, where it returned briefly in 2013.
Thanks to a vaccine, one of the most terrible diseases in history – smallpox – no longer exists. Thanks to vaccines, diseases that used to be common in our countries and around the world, including measles, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, mumps and tetanus, can now be easily prevented.
During this World Immunization Week, we remind people to be grateful for the progress made against polio. However, as the measles outbreak in North America continues to spread, we recognize the reality that infectious diseases remain a mere airplane ride away and pose a very real threat to every unvaccinated child.
Economically speaking, the stakes are high. The total global investment in polio eradication now stands at more than $11-billion, an investment the world cannot afford to squander by stopping short of the goal. Furthermore, if we eradicate polio, we could save up to $50-billion by 2035 in direct and indirect health-care costs, not to mention the immeasurable savings in human suffering.
Canada must be commended for being a leader from the start, committing more than $400-million (U.S.) to the polio eradication effort. Without continued commitment, Canada knows that the cost of failure would extend far beyond the estimated 200,000 annual polio cases if the last 1 per cent is not wiped out now.
The GPEI has assembled a powerful infrastructure of disease prevention and surveillance, multilateral networks equipped to respond to outbreaks (such as measles) across borders, and well-trained health-care professionals. Over the past year, the largest Ebola outbreak in history has claimed more than 10,000 lives and continues to spread, but in Nigeria, the extensive polio-eradication infrastructure there was used to successfully thwart the virus within a matter of months.
Hundreds of thousands of local health workers have spearheaded vaccination campaigns. In vaccination drives in India, upwards of 85 per cent of health workers are women, as is the case in Nigeria and Pakistan. They take great risks, sometimes paying with their lives when meeting resistance from extremists, to bring the benefits of vaccines to more than 2.5 billion children globally. Their sacrifice cannot be in vain now that we have reached the final hurdle.
So, again, what do this classical violinist and former prime minister have in common? Not only polio but the determination to end it forever.