A Race of Olympic Proportions: Reaching the Last Child with Polio Vaccine

from World Health Organization
Published on 27 Sep 2000
Health, Humanitarian and Business Leaders Gather and Agree to Strategic Plan For Certifying World Polio-Free By 2005; Countdown Clock Is Ticking
Ted Turner, Mia Farrow Among Those Who Pledge To Generate Funding & Political Will

'Timing is Everything' in Global Vaccine Relay

UNITED NATIONS, New York - Backed by a broad spectrum of leaders from business, governments, UN agencies and humanitarian groups, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today that the world could win the race against polio so long as health workers are able to vaccinate every child.

Touting the strategic plan 2001-2005 for the final chapter of global eradication, Mr Annan declared that the race to reach the last child with polio vaccine had begun. "Our race to reach the last child is a race against time," Annan said. "If we do not seize the chance now, the virus will regain its grip and the opportunity will elude us forever."

Mr Annan's statement came during an unprecedented gathering of leading players in the polio eradication effort, including TimeWarner Vice-Chairman Ted Turner, Rotary International President Frank Devlyn, WHO Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, government representatives from polio-affected countries, corporate and public sector donors, and actress Mia Farrow, who suffered from polio as a child and whose son Thaddeus is paralyzed by polio.

"We must negotiate access to all children for national immunization days, particularly in the priority countries affected by conflict. We must ensure the safety of health workers and volunteers, many of whom work daily to track the disease long after immunization banners have come down. We must use all the instruments of the UN system to finish the last chapter of polio eradication," said Mr Annan.

Delegates gathered at UN headquarters in New York to galvanize the necessary financial resources and political will to certify the world polio-free in 2005, a target set in 1988. Spearheading the initiative are the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The meeting of over 250 Summit participants pledged to help overcome the challenges: poliovirus will still be circulating in up to 20 countries by the end of this year, and US $450 million in new funding is needed to conquer the disease in those places. These 20 high-risk countries also present some of the most difficult logistical challenges to polio eradication, including populations that are geographically isolated and difficult to reach and, in a handful of countries, living in the midst of severe civil conflict.

Race Against Time

Symbolizing the race to beat polio, Mr Annan and Thaddeus Farrow started a specially-designed Countdown Clock, which will tick down the number of seconds remaining until the certification deadline at the end of 2005. The clock, donated by international watchmaker OMEGA, will also track the decreasing number of polio cases around the world. The number has dropped 95% since 1988, with roughly 7,000 reported cases in1999. The Countdown Clock will be on displayed at the United Nations until the world is certified polio-free.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland opened the summit by unveiling the Strategic Plan 2001-2005, which details the steps required to stop transmission of the wild poliovirus worldwide within the next 24 months; safely contain laboratory stocks of the virus; certify the world polio-free by 2005; and eventually end immunization against polio.

"We know what we have to do. We have the tools and the strategy to do it. The challenges outlined can be surmounted, but only if current and new partners commit their support through 2005. I urge you all to play your part in making history," Brundtland said.

Summit co-Chair Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF, praised the "truly Olympian efforts" of all the partners working toward polio eradication, but stressed that complacency or fatigue would jeopardize the initiative.

"Reaching our goals will require inspired teamwork from all of us," Bellamy told the polio partners. "Transporting fresh polio vaccine from the plants where it is manufactured to the remote regions where it is needed is a relay race requiring many hands. At the starting line of that relay are the vaccine producers who must continue to ensure timely production," Bellamy said.

Getting Synchronized

In an example of the extraordinary international cooperation to wipe out polio, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo - who spoke to the summit in a video address - committed his vast African nation of 120 million people to a region-wide surge in eradication activities that will cover 17 countries in west and central Africa next month. The "synchronized" immunization campaign seeks to reach 70 million children under age five in a single week, and is the largest regional health initiative ever undertaken in Africa.

"We, the leaders of Africa, call on support from every sector within our countries, and from around the world to ensure we take advantage of this tremendous opportunity," President Obasanjo said.

Turner, who is also Chair of the philanthropic UN Foundation, committed to help raise funds. Frank Devlyn, President of Rotary International which has members in 163 countries, pledged to support fundraising and provide additional volunteers for the increasingly intense house-to-house immunization efforts that have become key to reaching every child with polio vaccine. Rotary is the leading private sector partner in the Initiative, having contributed $378 million to the effort to date and committing a total of US $500 million by 2005.

Turner and Devlyn appealed to global corporations and individual philanthropists to help close the funding gap. They said they planned to travel to major cities around the world to ask foundations, corporations and individuals for donations of US $1 million or more.

"The cost of failure will far outweigh the funds we are now seeking," Devlyn said. "This eighteen- month private sector campaign will solicit funds to support National Immunization Days, surveillance and other projects that directly affect the eradication of polio."

Added Turner: "Once polio is eradicated and we can stop immunizing children against this scourge, the world will save US $1.5 billion dollars every year in immunization costs. Investing in polio eradication now is just good business."

Mia Farrow, A UNICEF Representative for polio, recounted her personal experiences of polio: "In the middle of my ninth birthday I crumpled to the ground and couldn't get up" It was 1954 and a polio epidemic was sweeping the nation," said Farrow. "Thaddeus is here with me today to show our support for this major initiative."

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Donna E. Shalala was also in attendance. Speaking about the responsibility of the industrialized world in supporting the polio countdown, she said: "Eradicating this disease, which knows no borders, is the responsibility of all of us. We must continue to fund this programme, and we must begin the search of every laboratory so we can find and safely contain the virus."

Also at the Summit, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement pledged to help fundraise, and committed its workers in the field to helping deliver oral polio vaccine to children living in the most difficult circumstances, many of whom may never have had access to any kind of public health care.


The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988 and is spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF.

The Initiative is supported by national governments; private foundations (such as The UN Foundation and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); development banks (e.g. The World Bank); donor governments (including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom and United States); humanitarian organizations (such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement) and corporate partners. Volunteers in developing countries also play a key role; more than 10 million have participated in mass immunization campaigns in recent years.

There are presently 30 polio-endemic countries, mainly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa including Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, India and Bangladesh. The number of countries in which polio is still circulating is expected to drop to 20 by the end of 2000.


Advance briefing material can be found at the Global Polio Partners Summit website at www.interpartners.org/polio/

Broadcast quality audio clips by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Frank Devlyn, Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, Carol Bellamy, Clare Short, Mia Farrow, Martina Hingis, Bill Gates and several others can be downloaded from www.interpartners.org/polio/ beginning on 26 September.

Slides are available through www.interpartners.org/polio/

Advance B-roll of polio national immunization days in Angola, Ghana, India, Sudan and Somalia is available through Rotary International.

For background, interviews, or UN press credentials, please contact:

Christine McNab, WHO (41-22) 791-4688, mobile (41 79) 217 3463, mcnabc@who.int

Claudia Drake, WHO (41-22) 791-3832, drakec@who.int

Vivian Fiore, Rotary International (1-847) 866-3234, fiorev@rotaryintl.org

Jeri Pickett, CDC (1-404) 639-8454, jpickett@cdc.gov

Mohammad Jalloh, UNICEF (1-212) 326-7516, mjalloh@unicef.org

Stacey Harris, UNICEF (1-212) 326-7259, sharris@