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The Polio Heroes

SEATTLE – The world’s progress in fighting polio might be one of the best-kept secrets in global health. Indeed, my heroes for 2015 are the men and women on the front line in the fight against the disease.

Since 1988, the number of annual cases of polio worldwide has dropped more than 99.9%. The disease used to paralyze an estimated 350,000 children every year; in 2015, the number of cases is likely to be fewer than 100.

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Moreover, the year 2015 marked another important milestone in our mission to wipe out this debilitating scourge: For the first time in human history, Africa marked a year without any wild polio cases.

Yet I’m often surprised to hear how many people don’t know about this mind-blowing progress.

The credit goes to an international coalition of visionary people: the leaders who make polio eradication a high priority in their countries and the funders who underwrite the work of combating the disease. For example, support from the United Arab Emirates has been indispensable to vaccinating children in Pakistan – along with Afghanistan, the only two countries that have never been polio-free.

But the stunning progress we’ve seen over the last three decades would not be possible without the volunteers and frontline health workers who go out – sometimes at the risk of their own lives – to make sure every child is protected. Whether navigating floods, hiking up treacherous mountains, or working in some of the world’s most conflict-ridden areas, 13 million children are alive and walking today because of these inspiring individuals.

That’s why I’m proud that the Gates Foundation has created a partnership with the UAE to honor these courageous people through the Heroes of Polio Eradication (HOPE) Awards. The ceremony with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was one of the most uplifting events on a trip I made recently to the Middle East.

It was great to meet with the recipients and celebrate their amazing work. There is Freeda, a Lady Health Worker in Baluchistan, Pakistan, who has supported the polio eradication program for more than 15 years across often-dangerous parts of the province. Last year, Freeda was injured and a family member was killed in an attack during a vaccination drive. But her commitment to helping to vaccinate kids never wavered.

Atta Ullah is a community leader and activist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, who mobilizes support from local leaders and health workers for polio eradication activities. He also works to expose fallacies and debunk rumors about polio vaccines.

I had already met the third recipient, Misbahu Lawan Didi, a couple of years ago in Nigeria. It was great to see him again and to see him recognized for his efforts. A polio survivor himself, Lawan Didi founded the Para-soccer game – an innovative program focused on building the self-reliance and self-confidence of 3,000 paraplegics.

Then there was Constant Dedo, a polio consultant for the World Health Organization in Nigeria, who has worked for almost a decade across South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan.

Constant’s story is one of true dedication to polio eradication. While stationed in Pakistan, Constant was shot and required major surgery, but still continues with his work.

Finally, we honored Bibi Malika, who is not only an important advocate for polio eradication, but also a community leader and a go-to source for medical wisdom in her hard-to-access community in Helmand, Afghanistan. She has been an inspiring example to other women in her area.

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All of these amazing individuals have my admiration and gratitude. Thanks to their efforts – and the endeavors of hundreds of thousands of people like them – we are achingly close to eradicating polio. Now we need to finish the job.

I am optimistic that we will get there soon, through the diligence of those fighting the disease and the generosity of countries like the UAE that make their work possible. And on that day, when we come together to celebrate the end of polio, the world will know that it was possible only because of these heroes.