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Polio eradication: Why should you give two hoots?

Polio eradication: Why should you give two hoots?

By Akram Azimi and Dwain Burridge

Why should a (U.S.) $1.5 billion shortfall in the global polio eradication budget concern taxpayers?

The usual technocratic response goes something like this:

1988 was the hinge point in the history of polio. Before then, more than 300,000 people, especially children, were struck down by polio every year. For too long, this was too much. So people came together across geographical and political divides to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Straight away, polio infection rates began to fall. In fact, in merely two decades, the GPEI eradicated 99.9% of the poliovirus–from 300,000 annual cases to just 66 cases last year. And this brings us to what the funding gap really represents: the international community’s greatest opportunity to fail to reach 100% eradication of, and protection from, the poliovirus by 2019.

Without more context, this answer might mean little to most Westerners. Besides, polio horrors are a distant memory for older generations and completely unknown to younger generations. And what is known: a multitude of other pressing issues competing for attention and hard-earned tax dollars. So, why should taxpayers care about polio eradication? A necessary but insufficient part of the answer lies in ethics.

Given the tiny cost of an average polio vaccine–about $0.10–and its enormous benefits in the number of lives and limbs saved, there is simply no more cost-effective way of doing the best for the most number of people.

Moreover, polio vaccinations carry no risk of dependency; in fact, the vaccinators make themselves redundant through their very intervention. And like all smart and effective development work, this public health program does not entail living people’s lives for them. Rather, it’s about removing community-wide obstacles that no one person can simply “choose away,” so individuals can take more control and responsibility for their lives and choices. However, moral reasons alone are not enough; taxpayers also need to hear the more “hard-nosed” reasons.

First, the global return on investment for the $9 billion spent on polio eradication since 1988 has been fantastic. To date, this investment has generated $27 billion of net benefits; and, should we 100% eradicate polio by 2019, the net benefits will grow to $50 billion over the next two decades. Conversely, the price of not eradicating polio by 2019 comes with a price tag: as much as $1 billion annually just to contain it.

Second, experts agree that non-endemic countries face a low risk of polio reinfection by overseas importation. But this risk will increase many times over if we drop the ball on global polio eradication. More specifically, should the international community ease up on fighting the poliovirus, the WHO estimates that as many as 200,000 polio cases could be reported annually within just five years. Clearly, this virus does not care a whit what passport we carry. It seems the only way to truly protect our national backyard is to make sure the whole global neighbourhood is safe.

In last November, one of us was in Malta, as Australia’s Youth Delegate to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where polio was passed through the General Assembly representing all the youth of the Commonwealth, clearly demonstrating that action on polio is what the Commonwealth youth want. Polio was also included in the 3-page condensed version of the Commonwealth Leaders’ Statement with a commitment to accelerate action to eradicate polio.

The Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, also convened a side event designed to persuade other Commonwealth nations that this is also in their taxpayers’ best interest. At the event, heads of government from Canada, Australia, the U.K., Pakistan and Nigeria were united in their call to revitalise global support for achieving a polio-free world. This meeting represented the perfect international platform for Australia’s Prime Minister to renew the country’s political and financial commitment to ending polio. Clearly, no one country can fill this funding gap alone; we either stand united or get infected separately. And should we stand united, we have an historic opportunity to eradicate that stubborn last 0.01% of polio–which we now know is anything but negligible.

Having said all of this, if you are still unconvinced, then let’s go back to the original question: why should taxpayers care? Because if we’re willing to spend billions of tax dollars on domestic healthcare every year, then surely we are also willing to pay a few million extra to purchase a rare thing in life: a health guarantee. More precisely, 100% protection from the risk of the poliovirus for ourselves, our children, their children and every generation that is to come. This is a guarantee that–as taxpayers–we would happily pay for. Wouldn’t you?

Akram Azimi was the 2013 Young Australian of the Year and attended the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting as Australia’s Youth Delegate. You can also follow him on Twitter.  Dwain Burridge is a resident medical officer working in the department of respiratory medicine at the Gold Coast University Hospital.

Featured image shows two polio vaccinators working in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Photo from UNICEF/Ethiopia.

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