Abu Dhabi crown prince backs $1.2bn drive to beat polio

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahayan pledges $30m as part of a new international effort to end the disease

Donors including the crown prince of Abu Dhabi promised $1.2bn to help finish the job of eradicating the crippling disease polio at a meeting in Atlanta, US, on Monday.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahayan joined with the governments of Canada and Japan, the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others to pledge $30m towards the estimated $1.5bn needed to snuff out the last pockets of polio.

The money will be spent on vaccination – including reaching children in conflict areas - disease surveillance and other activities critical to stopping the spread of the virus.

“We are closer than ever to making history,” said Chris Elias, global development president at Gates Foundation. “These new commitments will help ensure that we finish the job.”

Polio is a virus that attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. Children under the age of 5 are most at risk.

An international effort has cut polio cases by more than 99 per cent since 1998, and the disease is now close to being only the second in history – after smallpox in 1980 – to be banished. India – historically the biggest barrier to eradication – hasn’t reported a case in more than six years.

The virus remains endemic in only Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, but imported cases from these countries threaten other developing nations, where conflict, poor sanitation and transient populations have hampered vaccine access.

Three new cases of polio were confirmed last week in an area of Syria partly held by Islamic State, in the first reemergence of the virus since 2014.

“The key to ending polio will be to ensure that millions of health workers – some of whom work in the most challenging environments in the world – are able to reach every child, everywhere in the world,” said WHO director-general Margaret Chan. “Eradicating polio will be a perpetual gift to coming generations.”

Major pledges announced today included $450m from the Gates Foundation, $75m from Canada, $61.4m from the European Union, and $55m from Japan. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the giving vehicle of US billionaire Michael Bloomberg, promised $25m.

Members of service club Rotary International, a partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), will give up to $150m over the next three years. These donations will be matched by the Gates Foundation, as part of its own pledge.

“We are, together, truly on the verge of eradicating polio from the planet—but only if we work relentlessly to reach the children we have not yet reached,” said Anthony Lake, director general of the UN’s children agency UNICEF. “We cannot fail to make this last effort. Because if we do not now make history, we will, and should be, judged harshly by history.”

Sheikh Mohammed has been a long-term supporter of the global campaign to eradicate polio. In 2011, he joined with the Gates Foundation to give $100m for vaccination drives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2013, during the inaugural Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi, the crown prince gave a further $120m.