A Better World Through America
Polio eradication evinces the benefits of the triumph of the West.

A young child receives a polio vaccination in Mumbai, India.


Kevin D. Williamson

Earlier this month, India marked a milestone anniversary: With the passing of its third year without a case of polio, the country is officially considered polio-free. There remain only three countries in the world in which polio is endemic — Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — and all three continue to suffer for the same man-made reason.

While polio has nearly been wiped out in the rest of the world, it is on the rise in Pakistan, the infected children just more casualties of the endless jihad. The disease also has made what one hopes is a temporary comeback in Syria and Somalia, for similar reasons. Throughout history, disease has killed more people during war than soldiers or bombs.

Polio had been around for a long time, but it was the early 20th century before polio epidemics became common. Karl Landsteiner identified the polio virus in 1908, and Jonas Salk’s vaccine was rolled out to the world in 1955. Albert Sabin’s less expensive and more usable oral vaccine came into use in 1962. By 1979, the combination of the Sabin vaccine and a March of Dimes campaign had all but eliminated polio in the United States — the only cases were imported or the (very rare) consequence of vaccination.

That same year, the Rotary Club decided to raise money to vaccinate every child in the Philippines. Inspired by a successful campaign there, the organization decided that it would take on polio worldwide. Other organizations signed on, from government agencies to the World Health Organization, and in a remarkably short period of time, polio’s incidence had been reduced by 99 percent. The last 1 percent is tough, and expensive. For every dollar Rotarians contribute to polio eradication, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributes three more.

But the main obstacle to completely eradicating polio is not money, but culture: In Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and rural Nigeria, local culture is a source of endless war and a source of skepticism about the efficacy and probity of Western medicine. The latter is an unfortunate factor around the world: Even in the United States, there are occasional outbreaks of polio, for instance among non-vaccinating Amish in Minnesota. It is the prevalence of vaccination that keeps those outbreaks from becoming epidemics, and the recent rise of superstitious movements against vaccination here are a fresh reminder that we in the developed world are really in no position to laugh at the quaint ways of the backward people in exotic climes.

The key features of the campaign to eradicate polio are that it has largely been privately led — indeed, politicians have been and remain its principal roadblocks — and that it is very narrowly focused, ambitious in scale but not in scope, to some extent amenable to piecemeal implementation, and carries a positive net economic effect. It is an exercise in the right way to go about reshaping the world.

“Reshaping the World” is the theme of the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the great and the glamorous gather in a cool, dry place to sort out the troubles of the humble and squalid in the deserts and jungles of the world. It’s easy — and fun — to laugh at the global do-gooders as they mix with global evil-doers ranging from atomic ayatollahs to petty potentates, the pope sharing his Franciscan sensibilities with well-intentioned businessmen even as Beijing’s sinister laogai wardens lurk nearby.

But the cynic must in the end be a little disappointed: The do-gooders do a fair measure of good. They are sometimes feckless and they often have bad politics — so-called family planning and global warming being two voguish obsessions — but, like the Rotarians, they sometimes manage to focus on a well-defined problem and bring enormous resources to bear on it. I do not share all of Bill Gates’s views, but there is no debate on where malaria comes from, and $2 billion buys a lot of mosquito nets. Never let the partisans of politics convince you that only the state can provide public goods — or even that the state is the best provider of them.

Mr. Gates’s annual letter, in which he notes the many ways in which the human race has become radically better off during his lifetime, is worth reading. Of particular interest is Mr. Gates’s projection that if things continue along their current course, there will be almost no countries left that meet our definition of “poor country” by 2035. “Specifically,” he writes, “I mean that by 2035, almost no country will be as poor as any of the 35 countries that the World Bank classifies as low-income today, even after adjusting for inflation.” That would be a remarkable development.

Not remarkable enough for our attention-hungry legal adversary Michael Mann (who currently is suing National Review for poking fun at his hockey stick, which is not a Canadian euphemism). Mr. Mann took to Twitter to complain that Mr. Gates’s relative optimism fails to account for global warming, which in the monomaniacal mind of Mr. Mann renders all other progress moot. “Like the guy who jumps off a building and announces halfway down ‘Fine so far!’” is how he describes Mr. Gates.