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Implications Of Eradicating Polio, Or Failing To Do So, Go Beyond Public Health

In this Atlantic opinion piece, Rachel Hills, a freelance writer based in London, examines the WHO’s decision on May 25 to declare polio a public health emergency, “calling for the 194 member states to fully fund the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and fill the currently $945 million gap in its budget for 2012-13.” She writes, “Few people probably associate the phrase ‘global health emergency’ with polio, a disease that has been around for 5,000 years and is on a decades-long decline so steep that there are less than a thousand recorded cases left on Earth,” but “polio’s threat is still very real, and the mission to finally stamp it out forever is a crucial one for reasons even bigger than the disease itself.”

She states that “polio is a different type of emergency than the ones we usually hear about in the news,” writing, “Its biggest danger isn’t the current number of cases, but the implications for failure: not only because a failure to eradicate could allow for a resurgence that could kill or disable thousands of children each year, but because of what it holds for the effectiveness of our global health systems itself.” One implication “has to do with money,” she writes, noting, “Over the past quarter century, $9.5 billion has already been spent on polio eradication, driven by international organizations.” She writes that the other element “is symbolic,” as “polio will be a marker of either what the world can or cannot achieve in global health.” She concludes, “In public health circles, it is common to hear about the ‘symbolic’ importance of polio: how halting it would be a victory for public health, and how not taking advantage of the opportunity when the number of cases is so low would be a failure so devastating that it would make it difficult to pursue more such worldwide projects” (5/29).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.