UK Aid is Helping to End Polio in Pakistan

We're in the final round of an epic fight. Now is not the time to flinch - now is the time where together we make history.

In 1994, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto started the drive for a polio-free Pakistan by administering drops to her daughter Aseefa. At 18 years old, Aseefa Bhutto Zardari is now the Ambassador for Polio Eradication in Pakistan and determined to finish what her mother started. Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio transmission has never been stopped - Nigeria and Afghanistan are the others - and today, with the UK's steadfast support, we are closer than ever to reaching that goal.

Pakistan has more than its fair share of negative news stories and there are clear challenges to delivering development projects in Pakistan. However, the total eradication of polio would provide a blueprint for how we prevent other diseases and deliver effective aid. Looking across the border to India, which has almost reached two years without a single case of polio, we now definitively know that total eradication is possible.

So far, based on Pakistan's new national emergency action plan, which put in place new and better vaccination programmes, there have been 43 cases of polio this year in Pakistan: a decrease of more than 60% from this time last year, when Pakistan had more cases than any other country. I think of the innocent children still being paralyzed or killed by this preventable disease and I'm going to do all I can to get that number down to zero.

I'm proud that the UK government has led the fight against polio. Since 1985, UK aid to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative is approximately £600 million. Just last month, new secretary of state for international development Justine Greening pledged to vaccinate a further 29 million children against polio.

The UK's commitment, along with campaigns by Rotary International, UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more recently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have changed the course of the disease and saved millions of children. In 1988, there were 350,000 new cases of polio in 125 countries; in 2012, we're down to just 162 cases. But there can be no let-up in efforts until the world reaches zero. 99% eradicated isn't good enough.

The British Pakistani community strongly supports the collaboration between the UK government and Pakistan's national leadership to eradicate polio and reach children that have historically not been vaccinated. At the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month, leaders from across the world stood on one platform and renewed their commitment to end polio forever. As I watched President Asif Ali Zardari and Aseefa Bhutto Zardari speak alongside UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates and UK minister of state for international development Alan Duncan, I was humbled by their joint commitment to do whatever is necessary to wipe polio off the face of the earth.

It's not just polio, of course, and the UK aid programme as well as Pakistan's health challenges are greater than just one disease. Last year in London, at a meeting to replenish the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, the UK led the world by pledging £814m to help prevent 1.4 million children dying from preventable conditions such as pneumonia and diarrhoea. Just last week, Pakistan became the first country in South Asia to introduce a vaccine to protect children against pneumonia. It's hard to imagine but in Pakistan, more than 350,000 children die each year from the disease before they can celebrate their fifth birthday. The introduction of this vaccine reinforces Pakistan's commitment to protect children from all vaccine-preventable diseases.

Developing accountability mechanisms, ensuring community involvement and manoeuvring around the ongoing security situation are all challenges to ending polio in Pakistan. However, if war torn Somalia and Darfur can eliminate polio, we can defeat it everywhere. In September, more than 32,000 children in the conflict-affected Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area received polio vaccines for the first time since 2009, and measles and pentavalent vaccines for the first time ever. Religious leaders known as Ulema have lent their voices to the cause, and celebrities, like the cricketer Shahid Afridi, have stepped up to bat for eradication. There's no limit to what we can achieve, when we all work together.

The UK government has shown global leadership by ensuring that even in this time of global financial uncertainty, now is not the time to turn our backs on the world's poorest. From Clare Short of the Labour Party in the 1990s to Justine Greening of the Conservative Party, the UK has consistently committed to beating polio.

We're in the final round of an epic fight. Now is not the time to flinch - now is the time where together we make history.


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