The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

World Health Day, polio, and my dad

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Ministers of health around the world have been calling on the United States for years to help them strengthen their own systems, and it’s time to rise to the challenge. The US is shifting from emergency mode to working with governments and civil society to determine the long-term health needs of their country.

Today’s guest blog is written by Porter McConnell, senior policy advisor and Aid Effectiveness Team member.

Today is World Health Day. And the world is on the brink of eradicating polio. It’s hard for most of us to remember that before the polio vaccine, the disease crippled an average of 1,000 children every day. My own father was one of those children. He recovered full use of his legs, thanks to treatments at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute in Georgia, one of the earliest rehabilitation centers in the country.

But few children in developing countries have access to the kind of health facilities my dad did in the rural US. And vaccines are a tricky thing. They need an accessible primary care system to prevent resistance and keep the disease at bay for good. Diseases like polio that we have nearly eradicated have a tendency to reappear again when the global “big push” programs are over.

But there’s good news: five million people are now walking thanks in part to polio vaccine support from the US. The polio vaccine has not only saved lives, it has saved US taxpayer dollars: an estimated $180 billion that would have been spent treating polio victims has been averted. The US really stepped up its game with President Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI). The trend continues under President Obama. In 2009, the Global Health Initiative (GHI) was launched. The GHI redoubles US efforts to strengthen health systems, so countries can ultimately care for their own. GHI makes all this progress on HIV, TB, malaria, polio, and other infectious diseases sustainable by strengthening local health systems, and training health workers to manage routine care and prevention. The US is shifting from emergency mode to working with governments and civil society to determine the long-term health needs of their country.

It couldn’t come at a better time: before GHI, the US under-invested in health systems, and it hired away crucial health workers. We weren’t the only donors to do this, and as a result, there are now more Malawian doctors in Manchester, England than there are in Malawi. The GHI is the US’s chance to help reverse this phenomenon. Ministers of health have been calling on the United States for years to help them strengthen their own health systems, and it’s time to rise to the challenge.

Brenda Mwila (foreground) is a nurse at a rural clinic outside of Lusaka, Zambia.  USAID has worked with the Zambian government and civil society groups to recruit and train large numbers of community-based health workers. To combat malaria, these health workers distribute bed nets and safely diagnose and treat patients free of charge.  Their efforts, including indoor spraying, have resulted in 66 percent fewer malaria deaths over the last six years.  If aid for health care were pulled from countries like these, the results would be devastating. Photo by OXFAM.
Brenda Mwila (foreground) is a nurse at a rural clinic outside of Lusaka, Zambia. USAID has worked with the Zambian government and civil society groups to recruit and train large numbers of community-based health workers. To combat malaria, these health workers distribute bed nets and safely diagnose and treat patients free of charge. Their efforts, including indoor spraying, have resulted in 66 percent fewer malaria deaths over the last six years. If aid for health care were pulled from countries like these, the results would be devastating. Photo by OXFAM.

A battle over funding now rages in Congress, and the GHI might end up on the chopping block. In January, Oxfam and a coalition of NGOs and prominent individuals published an open letter to Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid. The letter urged Congress to protect the GHI from foolish cuts that could derail the GHI’s efforts to save lives and ultimately put ourselves out of the aid business.

Congress largely spared the international affairs budget when it passed the Continuing Resolution (CR) to avoid a government shutdown in March. But the reprieve was short-lived, and a new short-term spending bill introduced by the House this week again threatens these life-saving development programs.

Knowing that my dad might not be able to walk today if not for a strong health system has inspired me to fight like hell to give others around the world that same chance. Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate World Health Day.

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