Among its myriad of images, Lagos, Nigeria with its teaming masses, grinding poverty and ceaseless frenetic activity, one never ceases to shock: it is of the young men with twisted and wasted limbs who wheel in and out between the cars on homemade skateboards, begging and hustling for survival. They are a potent reminder of the severity of disability that polio inflicts; of its capacity to twist and paralyse limbs, to cause pain, lifelong suffering and material hardship. Hopefully they may be among the last to suffer its calamitous effects.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was first launched in 1988. Channelling support from a number of sources, notably UNICEF, WHO, Rotary and the Gates Foundation, it made remarkable progress. By 2011 it had managed to slash the incidence of the disease by 99 per cent. But in four countries, however, three of them from the Commonwealth, (Nigeria, Pakistan and India), outbreaks were still being reported and there were real fears that their success would be short-lived.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard recognised the urgency of the problem and made polio eradication one of the central initiatives of the 2011 Perth CHOGM. She persuaded her fellow leaders to pledge over $100 million in new funds to the cause and it remains one of the Commonwealth’s central commitments. In 2017, a mere handful of cases have been reported. The GPEI believes the end is in sight but much remains to be done to ensure that the virus is completely eradicated.
In April this year, a delegation—including the Head of the GPEI Michael Sheldrick and representatives from WHO and Global Citizen—visited Canberra to lobby for funds to complete the task. At a meeting with RCS Council members delegates expressed their gratitude for the support they had received from the Commonwealth; Council members warmly encouraged them to continue to maintain and strengthen their links with the Commonwealth and its many civil society organisations.
Angela Neuhaus, former Hon. Treasurer of the Commonwealth Nurses & Midwives Federation, has spent many years in Africa, including Nigeria, on postings with her husband, Matthew Neuhaus, whose most recent post was as Ambassador to Zimbabwe.