WHO Director-General assesses the status of polio eradiation

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Opening remarks at the high level meeting of the Global Polio Partners Group
Geneva, Switzerland

8 November 2012

Excellencies, colleagues in public health, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me extend our special thanks to Ambassador Golberg and Retired Ambassador Lange for their leadership of this high-level group.

Your views are critical as we take stock of progress, develop endgame strategies, and plan for the post-polio era. We are right to do so.

A year ago, we were on the verge of polio eradication in India. Today we can celebrate that victory with confidence.

I fully agree with the assessment of the Independent Monitoring Board. This is a “magnificent” achievement. It tells the world that the poliovirus is not permanently entrenched. It can indeed be driven out of existence.

A year ago, the IMB warned that polio eradication would not be achieved on the current trajectory. While praising India’s performance, the IMB highlighted serious challenges in the remaining countries with ongoing transmission.

That was a harsh assessment, but it was also an accurate assessment. To eradicate polio, we had to respond, to do things differently and with greater urgency.

The partnership took a hard look at each point of criticism, and took swift action. The World Health Assembly declared polio a programmatic emergency for global public health.

The polio programme was restructured. The whole effort moved into emergency overdrive. That meant taking direct oversight of the programmes through a new Polio Oversight Board. We activated our emergency operations centers, established new emergency protocols, and strengthened the leadership of country operations.

We recruited thousands and thousands of additional polio workers to support government efforts. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria launched national emergency action plans, overseen by the countries’ presidents.

In late September, the UN Secretary-General convened an extraordinary public meeting with the Presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, myself, Mr Bill Gates, and the heads of partner agencies. That event was an unprecedented show of global solidarity.

We have clear evidence that the national emergency plans are having an impact. More children are being reached, for the first time, in high-risk areas. We can say this with confidence, because we have much more rigorous monitoring systems in place, including ways to hold local officials fully accountable for vaccinating their children.

In its most recent full report from June, the IMB commended these improvements, and noted that polio is now at its lowest levels since records began. This assessment, I remind you, came just eight months after the IMB’s report from October 2011.

I believe we are back on track.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have a very real opportunity for success. We must seize this opportunity with a sense of urgency appropriate for an emergency situation.

We are right to plan now for the endgame and for a post-polio world. You will be looking at the working paper, Polio eradication endgame strategic plan 2013–2018, legacy planning and financial requirements.

This paper was requested by the World Health Assembly in May. It provides a roadmap for completing the eradication of wild polioviruses, stopping use of the oral polio vaccine, and building on the legacy of this huge public-private initiative.

Wide consultations are still ongoing to improve the strategy, and much revision is still needed. Your views will help ensure that we have a solid strategy in place for the Executive Board to review in January.

As highlighted in the draft strategic plan, very real challenges remain, like persistent gaps in vaccine coverage in some areas of northern Nigeria, weak management and insecurity in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the ever-present and very real danger of renewed international spread of the virus, particularly into West and Central Africa.

With programmes now on an emergency footing and performance rapidly improving, the financing gap is again emerging as the greatest threat to success. The funding gap is a serious constraint as we plan for the 2013–2018 period. The IMB noted that the lack of consistent financing was “not compatible with the ambitious goal of stopping polio transmission globally.”

We all know what is at stake. Polio eradication will bring enormous humanitarian and economic benefits. Upwards of $50 billion globally will be saved over the coming 25 years, most of it in developing countries. No child will ever again suffer lifelong polio paralysis.

And we know what is at stake if we do not get this job done. More than 250 000 people again being paralysed by polio every year, including adults.

Today, there are less than 200 new polio cases in the entire world. The prospect of not finishing polio eradication is unthinkable. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe that must be averted at all costs.

I am sure you agree. We are here because we share a passionate determination to get this job done. We need to keep the pressure on governments to act in an emergency mode, to deliver at peak performance, and to be held accountable for results.

We need to secure support for this effort from emerging donors and the private sector. And we especially need the G8, G20, and Islamic countries to help us rid the world of polio once and for all.

I look forward to hearing your views. We do not have many opportunities to permanently improve this world, to permanently end at least some misery. This is one.

Thank you.