* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A challenge we face in our interconnected world is that infectious diseases show no respect for international borders
When I was born in the 1950s, “polio” was a word that struck fear in the hearts of American parents. One polio outbreak in the summer of 1952 attacked 60,000 children, paralyzing thousands and killing 3,000. Then, in 1955, the United States introduced polio vaccination, and by 1979 the disease was eliminated from my country.
Since that time, when delivered in high coverage, vaccines have led to the elimination of most disease caused by 13 dangerous infectious diseases. But one of the challenges we face in our interconnected world is that infectious diseases show no respect for international borders, which means that health challenges anywhere can create health risks for all of us.
Just last month my hometown of Seattle, WA, narrowly escaped a serious infectious disease outbreak. A father and son who had recently returned home from an overseas trip were running some errands around town. While the father probably thought he and his child were just rundown from their travels, they were actually experiencing the onset of measles. The risk wasn’t identified and contained until the father visited a local clinic.
In the meantime, people were exposed to one of the most contagious diseases the world has ever known. In unvaccinated populations, the average person with measles will infect between 12 and 18 other people. By comparison, even at the height of the recent outbreak in West Africa, the average person suffering from Ebola transmitted the disease to two other people.
Infectious diseases can also have devastating health consequences. Before the vaccine became widely available in the 1980s, measles killed more than two million children worldwide annually. But thanks to global immunization programs supported by foreign aid contributions to great organizations like UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, more children than ever are receiving this and other life-saving vaccines.
What vaccines have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. We saw the last case of smallpox in 1977. Since 1988, polio cases have dropped 99.9% worldwide. The World Health Organization Regional Office for South-East Asia recently declared the region free of maternal and neonatal tetanus.
These are just a few examples of progress. By helping children in low- and middle-income countries avoid disabling and life-threatening diseases, we are ensuring that hundreds of millions of people will have the opportunity to lead a healthy, productive life.
That’s why vaccines are one of the smartest investments we can make. A 2016 study estimated that every dollar invested in child immunization programs returns $44 in long-term benefits. And that’s why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is so committed to ensuring that every child has access to immunization. Vaccines don’t just save lives – they create a better future for all of us.
So what can we do to sustain this incredible progress? First, we need to finish off vaccine-preventable diseases whenever and wherever possible. And with polio, it’s more than possible: it’s within our reach.
Thirty years ago, when the nations of the world made the commitment to eradicate the virus, 40 children were being paralyzed by polio every hour. By contrast, fewer than 40 children were paralyzed by the disease during all of 2016. So far this year, only five polio cases have been reported worldwide, and it has been successfully eliminated from all but three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.
As the chair of the Polio Oversight Board, which oversees the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership dedicated to ending polio, I’m excited to be part of an effort that is so close to success.
We are closer than ever to eradicating polio. And when we reach that goal, we’ll be able to thank partners like Rotary International—and its 1.2 million members in more than 200 countries—for demonstrating the powerful role that charitable organizations can play in creating lasting change to make the world safer and more equitable for every child.
But we can’t stop there. We must double down and ensure that all children have access to all essential vaccines. This is the driving force behind the Global Vaccine Action Plan, a framework designed to reduce preventable deaths by extending access to vaccines to all.
Since 1990, we have cut in half the number of children who die from preventable illnesses before their fifth birthday. Yet one in seven children worldwide still lacks access to even the most basic vaccines. The nations of the world can, and must, do more to ensure that children everywhere are protected from the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases. Until we make that commitment, all of us will be vulnerable to the cost of inaction.
Dr. Chris Elias is the president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.