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Thursday 27 March 2014 08.00 GMT
This week a regional certification commission is expected to declare the World Health Organisation south-east Asia region polio-free. I could not be prouder about this historic achievement.
People of a certain age will still remember the fear caused by the polio epidemics of the early 1950s, when this infectious viral disease sickened and paralysed as many as 8,000 children in the UK each year. But many Britons my age and younger won't know much, if anything, about polio. By the mid to late 1950s, effective vaccines were in wide use, and within two decades or so polio was gone from most of the developed world.
My situation, however, was somewhat different in that my parents came from India, where I lived for two years as a young girl. One of the things I remember, during my daily walk to school in Mumbai, was seeing other children crawling in the streets, their legs withered and deformed. Those troubling images stayed with me for years. Eventually, I learned that the children were victims of polio, which until very recently was regarded as a grim fact of life in India, where a combination of conditions – polluted water, poor sanitation, extreme poverty and a very dense population – allowed the disease to flourish.
Then in January, something akin to a public health miracle occurred: India completed three full years without a new case of polio, proving that the virus had finally been stopped within its borders. India was the last of the 11 countries in south-east Asia to beat the disease, setting the stage for the region's polio-free certification this month.
Since 2011, I have been a polio eradication ambassador for the humanitarian organisation Rotary International, one of the founding partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which since 1988 has been working to reach the world's children with the oral polio vaccine. My task is to raise awareness and to emphasise the importance of wiping out polio for good.
I am happy to report that today polio is 99% gone, down from about 350,000 cases a year in the 1980s to barely 400 in 2013. With India now free of the disease, only three countries remain polio-endemic: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must ramp up our efforts in the endemic countries, because from them polio can re-emerge to infect children in places where it had been stopped, such as we saw last year in Syria and the Horn of Africa. If we were to relax our guard – decide, say, that the world could live with a few hundred polio cases a year and cease our mass vaccinations in at-risk countries – experts tell us polio could rebound with a vengeance, infecting thousands of children a year.
That means we must keep the pressure on our political, business and philanthropic leaders to generate the resources to finish the job. As a British citizen, I am proud that the UK's commitment to polio eradication to date now totals more than $1.2bn, and I strongly urge our government to continue to lead by example. The Indian government likewise has spent $1.3bn to protect the nation's children from polio.
Since my personal involvement began, I have learned a great deal about polio eradication, and – due to my strong ties to my parents' homeland – I have followed the campaign in India very closely. Last year, I went to New Delhi, where I visited polio survivors who have benefited from corrective surgeries paid for by Indian Rotary clubs. I visited a health clinic, where parents brought their babies – and older children brought little brothers and sisters – to be vaccinated against polio. The most emotional moment came when I immunised a child, placing two drops of polio vaccine into her tiny mouth. I realised that the little one in my arms would never, ever suffer from this terrible disease. It was a transformative experience that brought the entire issue into crisp focus. It truly is about reaching one child at a time.