By Peter Yeo
In the past two decades, immunization efforts have averted an estimated 20 million deaths globally. Yet, for all the progress that has been made–thanks largely to a sustained investment from the United States, the United Nations, other governments, and private partnerships–a great need remains. Last year, well over 20 million infants did not receive vaccinations that would protect them from devastating yet entirely preventable diseases like polio and measles.
We know the consequences: They are costly and needless — in lost productivity, increased health care costs, and loss of life. We also know the opportunities: They include 20 million more kids getting a boost on their physical, emotional, and cognitive development.
Now, with the Global Vaccine Summit kicking off in Abu Dhabi today, leaders from the U.S. and around the world have 20 million reasons to devote their political will toward mobilizing resources and seeing through one of the most successful and cost-effective public health investments on the planet.
This summit–a gathering intended to give all children a healthy start to life by providing them with life-saving vaccines–comes at a critical moment, as the world works toward the target 2015 deadline to fulfill the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which include reducing childhood mortality.
We know that vaccines are a vital part of getting us there, and we’ve already made significant progress: Thanks to USAID and partner support, more than 100 million children now receive a basic set of immunizations every year, and tens of millions more receive supplemental vaccines against polio, measles, and other diseases. In addition, UNICEF currently supplies vaccines to 36 percent of the world’s children. With a steadfast commitment to continuing global immunization campaigns like these, the elimination of diseases like polio may become a reality in this current generation.
Indeed, the return on efforts from the U.S., UN, Rotary International, and other partners to expand polio vaccine access and coverage has already been measurable. While polio paralyzed more than 1,000 children each day in the 1980s, today the number of new polio cases has dropped more than 99 percent, leaving the world nearly polio-free. As the lead scientific agency for US government efforts toward global polio eradication, the CDC contributed significantly to that remarkable achievement of reducing the number of cases reported: from 350,000 in 1988, to just 223 in 2012.
In fact, worldwide, polio cases stand at their lowest levels, in the fewest districts, in the least number of countries at any point in history. We are so close to eradicating this disease, and we must maintain a global focus to achieve that goal. Eradicating polio means no child in generations to come will ever be paralyzed by this disease. It means that societies will not have to face the $40-50 billion price tag that could come with treating paralytic polio and lost productivity. Conversely, left untreated, global re-infection could result in as many as 200,000 children per year being paralyzed over time.
Given the exceptional risks of inaction, and the extraordinary rewards for maintaining the momentum on vaccination efforts, additional government, multilateral, private sector, and civil society support remains essential. Less than 1,000 days remain in the historic framework of the Millennium Development Goals, including the reduction of childhood mortality, but this fight must live on so that diseases like polio and measles do not undermine its progress.
By building this awareness, we can put pressure on governments, civil society, the private sector, and other key actors to make meaningful and concrete steps to help fulfill these goals through immunization. Twenty million children are counting on it.