State Department official discusses polio

U.S. Undersecretary of Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky stressed the United States’ role in the ongoing international effort to eradicate polio in a speech Tuesday.

Dobriansky’s address in the Jack Morton Auditorium, the first event in the Elliott School’s Distinguished Women in International Affairs speaker series, stressed the importance of foreign policy to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

“We are in cooperation with partners, here and around the globe, vigorously combating polio,” Dobriansky said. “The eradication of the disease . lies within sight.”

Polio is a debilitating neurological disease that can cause paralysis in a matter of hours. The disease is highly contagious and affects mostly children, with roughly half of all cases occurring in children under age three.

The Bush administration, the State Department official said, is committed to fighting polio and other health crises including tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and avian influenza. President George W. Bush appointed Dobriansky to her position in 2001.

She underscored the importance of fighting disease in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s doctrine of “transformational diplomacy.”

“Healthy and safe citizens are . a prerequisite for any country to develop and flourish economically and also, significantly, to sustain civil society,” Dobriansky said.

Representatives from major organizations leading the fight against Polio were also present on stage, including members of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, USAID, Centers for Disease Control, Rotary International and the Gates Foundation.

Timothy Wirth, a former U.S. Senator and current president of the United Nation’s Foundation and the Better World Fund, summarized both past successes and remaining challenges facing the movement.

He highlighted the drop in cases of Polio from 395,000 children afflicted in 1988 to fewer than 1,500 cases in 2006 and eradicating endemic polio from all but four of the 125 nations originally afflicted.

Wirth, whose United Nation’s Foundation was founded by a $1 billion grant from media mogul Ted Turner, also identified the major problems facing the fight against polio as a lack of resources and internal strife in afflicted nations.

Dobriansky followed Wirth’s lead in praising the past successes of the movement but also cautioned that significant hurdles remain.

“The populations affected by polio are among the poorest and most difficult to reach through public health tools,” she said. “Existing conflict, dire poverty, and religious and social tensions have compounded the problems.”

The American pandemic of the early 1950s spurred the creation of a vaccine in 1953, which greatly curtailed the number of cases in wealthier nations, according to a University press release about the event. A large push to eradicate the disease in the late 1980s spearheaded by the World Health Organization nearly wiped out the disease, but the group’s ultimate goal of the eradication of polio by the year 2000 went unfulfilled.

The vast majority of polio cases today occur in the four endemic countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria.

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