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Former prime minister Paul Martin (Yvonne Berg For The Globe and Mail)
Former prime minister Paul Martin (Yvonne Berg For The Globe and Mail)

Paul Martin

We are on the cusp of ending polio Add to ...

Few Canadians remember a time when polio struck children across the country at whim. Yet, it is important to remember that this devastating disease continues to cripple children in countries such as India, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

But on this World Polio Day, we are on the verge of an incredible opportunity: the eradication of polio. Over the past two decades, polio cases have decreased by 99 per cent, dropping from 350,000 cases each year to fewer than 1,500 cases in 2010. Now is our chance to finally eliminate polio so no child ever has to suffer from this disease again. If we are successful, it would be a historic achievement. Finishing the job would make polio only the second disease, after smallpox, to be eliminated.

Later this week, the fight against polio will receive international attention from global leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia. This forum brings Canada together with other countries that have been leaders in the polio eradication effort, including the U.K. and Australia, as well as polio-affected countries such as India, Nigeria and Pakistan. These leaders must seize the opportunity to give polio the attention it needs.

Perhaps the most critical need is $541-million to sustain efforts through 2012. But if we succeed in eradicating polio, this sum will pay for itself many times over and save countless children. If we fail, this disease threatens to continue crippling and killing children around the world.

While Canada and other countries have generously offered their leadership and funding to defeat polio, global leaders need to stretch even further. We are on the cusp of ending this disease. But for this to happen, it is not enough it be restricted geographically – it must disappear from the face of the Earth so a new outbreak becomes impossible.

I’m committed to this fight against polio because I know its effects firsthand, as did my father before me. When I was 8, polio paralyzed my throat. My parents feared the worst as they rushed me to hospital. During those years, most children who survived polio became permanently paralyzed or ended up in an iron lung. But I became one of the fortunate ones and fully recovered after a long spell in the polio ward at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Windsor.

Since then, the world has made immense strides in the fight to end polio. But the fight is not over. New cases have erupted in countries such as China and Kenya that were once polio-free. This shows that, as long as there is polio anywhere, the threat exists everywhere.

Several new developments give me hope that we are closer than ever. A new vaccine that targets two types of poliovirus has proved incredibly effective. India, one of the hardest places to fight polio, has only seen one case this year, thanks to government leadership. In addition, the global polio program has developed a new strategy to achieve eradication with regular evaluations from an independent monitoring board.

Our government has been a long-time leader in the fight against polio, beginning in 1952 when Canadian scientists developed the “Toronto method” to cultivate poliovirus fluids in bulk for use in vaccines. Since then, Canada has become one of the top five countries to fund the global polio program, committing $295-million since 1985. Canada has also invested heavily to eliminate polio in Afghanistan. Every Canadian should be proud of our contributions to fight this disease worldwide.

In 1955, my father, Paul Martin Sr., then minister of national health and welfare, faced a difficult decision. A faulty batch of polio vaccines had caused 79 American children to be infected with polio, and the U.S. Surgeon General suspended that country’s vaccination program. There were calls for Canada to do the same. But my father knew the vaccine could save lives and was confident that the Canadian-produced vaccines were safe. He acted decisively and continued Canada’s program, protecting thousands of children against this disease.

The world faces a time-limited opportunity to finally defeat polio once and for all, and we cannot let it pass us by. We, too, must act decisively. We have the tools available to eradicate this disease. Now we must come together as a global community to secure a safer future for our children.

Paul Martin is the former prime minister of Canada.

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