Polio Eradication, 22 August 2011
As an economics professor at the Australian National University, one of the people I admired most was Bob Gregory, one of Australia’s most creative minds. As well as being a great thinker, Bob is also one of the last people in Australia to contract polio. In an interview with William Coleman he talks about what happened in 1953, when he contracted polio at age 14. Bob said:
“One day in April I was training for football on a Tuesday and I began to feel stiff and I had to go home. The next day I had to leave school and go to bed. The doctor came and said to Mum, ‘He’s either got the flu or polio.’ Polio was a very bad thing: people died or might be paralysed for life. It attacked lots of children. By Friday my leg wasn’t better, so I went to hospital. I felt fine (apart from flu symptoms) and I was optimistic. In bed you don’t know you can’t walk. It was only after 14 days when they got me out of bed that I discovered that I could not walk. Then I spent nine months in bed. They strap you to an iron frame, your feet are in plaster casts and then your parents take you out of the frame twice a day and exercise you for half an hour. So my father, before and after a hard day’s work, had to exercise me. He could move my affected foot but I could not. It remained still. Some days I would say, ‘Ooh, I think I can move a toe or I think I can feel something’ but I couldn’t really. It must have been heartbreaking for them.”
Polio vaccination in Australia started a few years after Bob contracted the disease. But given that he contracted it, he was pretty lucky; he only walks today with a leg brace. Many polio victims require walking sticks or a wheelchair to get around. The motion I move today calls for one of the most significant public health opportunities of our time—the eradication of polio. Over the past quarter century the total number of polio cases worldwide has been reduced by 99 per cent, from 350,000 in 1988 to just 1,349 cases in 2010. Most regions of the world are free of the disease thanks to major immunisation efforts. I particularly commend the efforts of successive Australian governments, working with multilateral non-government organisations, such as Rotary International and other national governments, in wiping out polio in the Pacific.
In 2011 there are just four countries where polio remains endemic: Afghanistan, Nigeria, India and Pakistan. Three of these are Commonwealth nations. All Commonwealth countries, including Australia, have a stake in the elimination of the disease, and the opportunity to end suffering has never been greater. A study published in The Lancet in 2007 showed that the cost of eradicating polio once and for all is billions of dollars less than the cost of merely keeping infection levels where they are now. The world has, of course, seen that infectious disease can be eradicated through targeted immunisation programs. Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300 million to 500 million deaths during the 20th century. The late Australian microbiologist Professor Frank Fenner and his team were instrumental in eradicating smallpox in its last African strongholds in the late 1970s. Professor Fenner described announcing the eradication of smallpox to the UN’s World Health Assembly in 1988 as the proudest moment of his long career. By eradicating smallpox we no longer have to vaccinate young children, and as someone who myself received the smallpox vaccine as a young boy, when we were travelling to Indonesia, I can attest that it was a pretty painful vaccination to receive.
In all of human history, only one other infectious disease has ever been completely eradicated. The UN announced the eradication of cattle disease Rinderpest in June this year. Again, we stand on the cusp of a great breakthrough. Endemic polio has been contained to the smallest geographical area in the history of the world. Polio surveillance is at an unprecedented high. In 2009 alone, more than 361 million children were immunised in 40 countries as part of the global polio eradication initiative. Yet the initiative currently faces a funding shortfall of US$590 million for the full implementation of its 2010-12 polio eradication and strategic plan. Failure to meet the financial requirements of eradication is a failure to protect future generations from the debilitating effects of polio paralysis. I call upon the government to support efforts to deliver a polio-free world and to advocate for the inclusion of a strong statement, urging Commonwealth countries to strengthen immunisation systems, including for polio, in the finally communique of the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. In closing, let me just pay my thanks to Huw Pohlner, an intern in my office this week, who provided me with invaluable assistance in preparing these remarks.
And here’s the motion:
That this House:
(1) commends the efforts of successive Australian governments, working with multilateral, non-government organisations such as Rotary International and other national governments, in wiping out polio in the Pacific and reducing the total number of polio cases worldwide by 99 per cent since 1988;
(2) notes that polio remains endemic in four countries—Afghanistan, Nigeria, India and Pakistan—three of which are Commonwealth nations;
(3) recognises that in 2010, there were only 1290 cases of polio worldwide, down from 350 000 cases in 1988, indicating the unprecedented opportunity the world has to eradicate polio once and for all;
(4) notes that the Global Polio Eradication Initiative currently faces a funding shortfall of US$665 million for the full implementation of its 2010-12 Polio Eradication Strategic Plan; and
(5) calls upon the Government to support efforts to deliver a polio-free world and to advocate for the inclusion of a strong statement urging Commonwealth countries to strengthen immunisation systems, including for polio, in the Final Communique of the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.