Last Thursday I found myself in the same room as Bill Gates, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Afghan President Hamid Karzai among other world leaders and VIPs who'd gathered at the United Nations for basically a pep rally to eradiate polio. Finally eradicate polio. In lieu of driving carpool and microwaving dinner I sat beside my fellow UN Foundation colleagues and Shot at Life champions gawking, posing with the ubiquitous headphones and tapping the mini-microphone before me like an extra who'd wandered onto the set of The Peacemaker .
Child receiving polio immunization in Nigeria. Credit: Global Polio Eradication Initiative
As Senator Timothy Wirth, President of the UN Foundation kicked off the program, the enormity of the gathering and the mission began to sink in. Hamid Kazsai was in the room. I moved away from the microphone for fear of turning this "high level event" into a surreal YouTube moment. Yes, um Mr. President, Your Excellency, just one tiny question...
The line up in addition to Gates, Karzia and Ban Ki-moon included none other than Goodluck Jonathan, President of Nigeria Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia
Plus some other names and organizations you just might recognize including the heads of the World Health Organization, UNICEF and Rotary International. Yes ending polio is that important.
It quickly became clear this was no ordinary UN event. In fact the UN Dispatch later named it one of the best moments of UN Week. Senator Wirth called it the most important international meeting on polio eradication in the last 20 years.
Here was a group of leaders who haven't always agreed and certainly had any number of other pressing issues to resolve but joined forces for a single urgent cause, a "once in a generation opportunity" as Bill Gates put it or a "decisive moment" according to Ban Ki-moon who announced he was making it one of his top priorities - wiping polio off the earth by reaching the hardest to reach children in the most worn torn, savaged or remote areas - the final 1% of polio cases still remaining after a 15-year effort.
Yes, the other one percent.
99% gone, 1% still left.
The international fight against polio began in 1988, the year 350,000 people around the world contracted polio compared to 450 cases so far this year. Over the last 15 years 2.5 billion children have been immunized against the disease and 1.5 million lives saved. Impressive, evidence of great progress but not there yet. Today the number of endemic countries has fallen from 125 to just 3 - Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, hence their leaders in attendance pledging their support.
Basically to let polio flourish again would be a major disaster. It's like starting a marathon then giving up before the last mile.
Or rehearsing your insightful presentation, squeezing into the hose and pumps, finding someone to drop off your daughter at home after practice only to realize upon taking the podium you have toilet paper streaming down your backside.
Yes all the hard work for naught with, unlike a mere road race or potty problem, deadly consequences, real consequences for families and kids or as Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan's Goodwill Ambassador on Polio Eradication, noted the aftermath of polio isn't just confined to individuals and their legs - "It cripples dreams." Earlier on the stage her father, Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan displayed a large photo of his daughter with her late mother, Benazir Bhutto, yes the assassinated PM. “I have a picture of my wife immunizing our daughter 18 years ago,” Zardari said. “My martyred wife told the world she dreamt of a world in which all children are free of disease.”
Yes, a world leader holding up family photos to make his point.
Continuing the personal-is-political note, Kathleen Sebelius, US Secretary of Health and Human Services recalled how as a schoolgirl during the 1952 outbreak she watched as other kids were stricken. A few years later she was one of the first children (Polio Pioneers) to receive the new vaccine and remembered how the fear of polio had literally vanished over night.
The most tweet-worthy sentiment came from Aussie PM Julia Gillard who remarked "we are all diminished" because some kids "still want for the vaccine." I particularly loved her shout out to the power of reason, science and medicine but couldn't write fast enough to get the specific quote down. Nor was I successful tracking it down from anyone else or downloading the video but if anyone has it, please send it. How come no other media featured it? Huh?
Speaking of science and smarts, Bill Gates slouched in his chair with a slightly goofy grin throughout then sat forward when addressing the crowd, his message brief but clear. "We need to move quickly and have a comprehensive plan" he said then told how technology was paving the way to a polio-free future such as satellite mapping tools used to lead health workers to remote areas and GPS trackers in vaccine shipments so they're not lost or sold on the black market. He called ending polio "one of the smartest investments the world can make." He's not only using money, like a billion, to solve it but his significant brain. "The fight to eradicate polio is the thing I spend most of my time on." So there you have it, what the second richest man in the world (only because he gave away the rest) thinks about day in and day out. Not world domination but poverty and disease.
Coming back to earth or rather the realm of regular folks without a billion dollars, here's what you can do to help shut the door on polio. Go to The End of Polio . Sign the petition. (I might have been the 300,000 person to sign) Go to Shot at Life . Sign up. Ask the grandparents about the summer of 1952. Ask if anyone in the family was affected. Do something even if it's just telling your kids about the kids on the other side of the world who can't run, can't even walk. Start talking about that one percent, the small but needy portion of kids who lack access to polio vaccines. Let's Occupy Polio.
Or as my friend and global do-gooder Holly Pavlika piped up after leaving the UN last week, let's get from one to none...you got it...#one2none.