ABU DHABI // Bill Gates will return to the capital next month for a summit focusing on plans to eradicate polio worldwide by 2018.
A roadmap to eliminate the disease will be announced after the event. Organisers hope it will be the final eradication strategy.
“We think it’s a seminal moment,” said Joe Cerrell, director for Europe and the Middle East of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s an opportunity for leaders from around the world to come together and pledge their support to try to immunise every child everywhere to make sure that children in poor countries have an opportunity to have a healthy start in life.
“We’ve never had the technology, the commitment. Having Abu Dhabi there signifies that this really is a global ember, not just for public health experts.
“We really want to make sure that we get the job done this time.”
The Global Vaccine Summit will be held on April 24 and 25 under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and in partnership with the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Thanks to tremendous progress in 2012, we now have a unique window of opportunity to change history and end polio,” said Mr Gates, according to the state news agency Wam. “We must invest now to ensure strong immunisation systems will protect our gains against polio and help us reach mothers and children with other life-saving vaccines and additional health services.”
Fewer than 250 polio cases were reported last year, compared with 650 cases in 2011. But comprehensive outreach programmes to remaining areas are difficult, dangerous and require sustained funding, education and cooperation from civil and religious leaders.
“We’re trying to reach out to the last few places where polio is still present, and that’s tough,” said Mr Cerrell. “There’s no doubt that the security risks are high, and it’s really been challenging in recent weeks. The summit in Abu Dhabi is a real signal to the rest of the world that this is something in everyone’s interests, no matter what your ideology.”
It is also costly. The polio eradication campaign costs more than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) a year. The roadmap that will be released after the conference will cover the financial, technical and political requirements.
“What we’re trying to do is to secure the resources necessary to make sure there’s predictable financing to support the plan,” Mr Cerrell said. “We hope there are significant financial pledges made by leaders to this issue.
“The goal really is to spotlight the role immunisation can play in developing countries to help children live more productive lives.
“If we don’t meet this challenge, polio will come back, and it will come back in a big way, and that’s what we really want to avoid.”
Sheikh Mohammed donated $50 million to the World Health Organisation and United Nations Children’s Fund in 2011 to deliver polio vaccines in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two of the three countries where polio remains. The other is Nigeria.
This commitment sends a strong message to other leaders, Mr Cerrell said.
“We hope that by highlighting Abu Dhabi’s role in immunisation and in polio eradication that it also stimulates other partners to step forward and take on some of these very winnable fights, whether it’s with the Gates foundation or other organisations.”
Political, business and NGO leaders are expected to attend.
“I know Bill Gates is really excited to be in Abu Dhabi in a month’s time,” said Mr Cerrell. “We think that this will be the last polio plan.
“We really need to demonstrate that it’s not only possible, but with enough commitment and the right resources, it’s very doable.”
The polio campaign will establish systems for routine immunisation programmes that can save children from other diseases.
“The Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi is another critical step to ensuring that all children have access to life-saving vaccines,” said Sheikh Mohammed yesterday. “This collaboration is part of our ongoing work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, potentially transforming generations to come.
“Under the guidance of Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, we remain committed to advancing the opportunities and benefits of a healthy global society through childhood immunisations.”