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€1.1bn fund announced to eradicate polio and strengthen global health systems

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The European Commission, European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have announced a €1.1 billion “financing partnership” which seeks to eradicate polio and support global access to health services and innovations.

The partnership was announced on Wednesday (11 October) by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EIB Werner Hoyer, and Bill Gates. They did so alongside the “implementing partners” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general, and Catherine Russel, UNICEF executive director.

Polio, caused by a human enterovirus, is a highly infectious viral disease primarily affecting children below five years old, which can enter the nervous system and cause paralysis. The fight to eradicate polio started in 1988 when the World Health Assembly, part of the WHO, passed a resolution to end polio, leading to the establishment of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

Since 1988, cases of wild polio have decreased by more than 99% – from an estimated 350,000 cases in more than 125 endemic countries to six reported cases in 2021, according to the WHO. A vaccine was first approved in the US in 1955.

Only one out of three strains of wild polio remains, which was detected in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2022. At the same time, vaccine-derived polio is found in a number of other countries too.

“The final stretch can be the most challenging. So I’m glad that today we are launching a new partnership to get through this last mile. So that humanity can wipe polio off the face of Earth,” said von der Leyen at the launch.

Of the €1.1 billion, €500 million will go to the GPEI, aiming to cover polio vaccinations for almost 370 million children every year, strengthen health systems as well as deliver health services and routine immunisation to children.

“Children who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated typically live in remote areas, in communities with little access to health services. This new financing mechanism will allow us to reach those children,” said Ghebreyesus at the launch.

“This is the final push and we can do it. But we should keep pushing,” he added.

The only other disease to be declared eradicated is smallpox, which the WHO announced in 1980. The WHO declared the European Region polio-free in 2002.

Another €500 million will be directed to investments and grants to promote accessibility to health innovations, strengthen health systems and prepare for future pandemics globally, according to the Commission. Of this, €250 million in investments are made by the European Investment Bank and guaranteed by the European Fund for Sustainable Development plus (EFSD+). This falls under the EU investment strategy Global Gateway.

Lastly, €80 million, €40 million of which is grants from the European Commission, will be technical assistance to “ensure that global health programs achieve their full potential”.

At the moment there are no specific details about where this money will be used.

Strengthening health systems and access to health services globally has been particularly high on the agenda since the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the major vulnerabilities and inequalities worldwide.

Attempts to address some of these issues were made last year in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) when a widely criticised waiver to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was agreed upon.

Currently, work is ongoing in the WHO to establish a Pandemic Accord and amend the 2005 WHO International Health Regulations (IHR).

The EU Commission adopted a Global Health Strategy in 2022 in which they aim to improve access to health globally. The EU Council is expected to agree on conclusions on the strategy, however, no specific timeline is set.

Speaking at the launch of the Global Gateway investments on health, von der Leyen said that “every continent should be able to produce the vaccines and medicines it needs” and that it is “key to defeat global health threats.”

“It is essential that we all join forces on this. The road to large-scale manufacturing is very complex. It requires factories, but also training of thousands of workers all across the value chain, as well as health sector reforms,” she said about the mammoth task to minimise global health inequalities.

[Edited by Giedrė Peseckytė/Nathalie Weatherald]

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