Jennifer warned Rotarians against polio fatigue by insisting that the world has never been closer to winning the battle against the disease.
Speaking at an End Polio Now event at the House of Commons, the Canadian said she was mindful how Rotarians have heard over many years how close the world was the seizing victory.
“We get fatigued sometimes and people wonder when is it going to happen,” said Jennifer.
“But the reason for nights like tonight is to let you know that we are within reach and we have to have the confidence that we are going to do this and keep our promise to the children of the world.”
We have never worked so hard to find the virus. We are aggressively going after that virus wherever it takes place. We are most definitely on track for the goals that we set ourselves in the strategy.”
Speaking in one of the committee rooms at the Palace of Westminster, in front of an invited gathering of Rotarians, the RI President spoke movingly about her visit to Pakistan last year, watching vaccinators move from house to house in some of the most challenging slums in oppressive heat to carry out polio vaccinations of young children.
“I visited Karachi and Islamabad with one very simple purpose and that was to offer word of gratitude to these women, the vaccinators, who put themselves in harm’s way every day. These women told me they believe they are on the frontline of this war.
“I am enormously proud of the work these women are doing to ensure every child remains polio-free.”
Jennifer Jones admitted funding the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to complete the task remains a challenge. There is a gap of $2.2 billion in order to immunise 400 million children over the next three years.
But the reward of delivering on the promise and creating the legacy of a public health infrastructure were enormous, she said.
Aidan O’Leary, the World Health Organization’s Director for Polio Eradication, described 2023 as “an absolutely critical year”.
Pointing out how there have been no polio outbreaks in Afghanistan or Pakistan since September last year – the only two places where the wild poliovirus is endemic – the Irishman admitted: “That comes against a backdrop where we have never looked so hard to find the virus.”
He said that in both countries, despite political and security difficulties, he believed that they were winning the fight.
Though he cautioned, with federal and provincial elections looming in Pakistan, alongside dealing with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, there remains many hurdles. “Our challenge continues to be to improve quality in each successive round.
“As we speak today, there is a campaign targeting more than nine million children across Afghanistan. That’s not withstanding the huge challenges that exist in the country as a whole, but we continue to find a way to operate.
“We have never worked so hard to find the virus. We are aggressively going after that virus wherever it takes place. We are most definitely on track for the goals that we set ourselves in the strategy.”
The WHO chief outlined challenges they were facing to fight polio in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen, notably in northern Yemen, where the authorities have not allowed immunisation campaigns to go ahead.
Delighted to announce my new role as Polio Eradication Gender Champion at tonight’s @Rotary event. UK 🇬🇧 support is helping the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to #EndPolio and has seen polio cases drop by 99.9% since 1988. Women are key to finishing the job. pic.twitter.com/arT1Go5vT8
— Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP (@AndrewmitchMP) March 14, 2023
He added: “Given the environments we are operating in, we’re going to have to continue to exercise no complacency in what we are facing.
“We would like to thank the UK and Rotary for all your support – whether is it advocacy or financial, that commitment has been outstanding.
“And in 2023, it is important that we see it through.”
At the meeting, Andrew Mitchell MP, Minister of State (Development & Africa) announced he will be taking on the role of gender champion for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and pledging the Government’s continued support for the campaign.
He pointed out how the British Government has supported the initiative to the tune of £1.4 billion. “As long as polio is anywhere, it is a threat everywhere,” he said.
“They do say the last mile of any marathon is always the hardest, and the UK will continue to support the campaign in global forums.”
And speaking about his new role, the Minister said: “The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has the capacity to empower women and girls. Women are critical in the fight against polio.”