Just sixty years ago polio haunted the streets of Britain. The disease left thousands of children with paralysed limbs, forced to face a lifetime of disability. Hospital wards were filled with row upon row of iron lungs. Hundreds died every year.
It took a mass vaccination campaign to eradicate the disease from these shores. After the introduction of polio vaccines in the mid-1950s the number of new cases dropped from 8,000 in 1947 to less than 100 per year by the late 1960s. By 1983 this number had dropped to zero.
This is a story that has been repeated in countries across the world and today vaccinations play a huge part in deciding a country’s long-term health. The more healthy a population, the better able it is to contribute to and benefit from economic development.
Britain will not stand on the sidelines while easily-preventable diseases are still a risk to thousands of people across the world. We have led the global fight to increase access to vaccinations and the British people are currently helping to immunise a child every two seconds against killer diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea. We are reaching 80 million children and are on track to saving 1.4 million lives.
This week, at the Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi, we will stand together with states from the Gulf region, the US, Germany, the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation, Rotary and others to commit to a six-year plan to consign polio to the history books.
Polio is a very easily preventable disease. Since the World Health Assembly began its Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988 the number of countries in which polio is endemic has dropped from 125 to just three. But it would be all too easy to think that after a 99 per cent reduction in polio cases the international community can sit back and congratulate itself on a job well done.
As the recent measles cases in the UK have so clearly demonstrated however, without global eradication the risk of disease always remains. It will take a concerted global effort with real investment from donors, development banks and foundations. We also need governments of all countries to ensure routine immunisation for all as well as access to essential services.
Britain will continue to support other countries to increase their routine immunisation and help end a range of preventable diseases. Our generation has a genuine opportunity to make the devastating disease of polio just the second human disease in history to be completely eradicated. This week’s Vaccine Summit represents a historic opportunity to give these efforts one final push. It’s time to end the suffering once and for all.
Justine Greening MP is Secretary of State for International Development