Consider polio's excruciating impact on its victims. First: the agony, the paralysis, the flaccid muscles that will never repair. Then: forever after, the physical pain of legs, arms, other limbs or spine damaged or unusable. The frustration and pain accompanying the simplest daily tasks: climbing out of bed, dressing, walking. The stares, comments and discrimination. The likelihood of remaining unemployed. Of remaining unmarried. And too often: the shunned children, hidden away at home, warehoused in institutions, abandoned to beg on the street. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is ending these needless tragedies.

Today, because they were immunized against polio, millions more people are leading full and productive lives, free of disability. Hospitals and clinics are saving on the cost of rehabilitating polio victims worries and costs.

Like the smallpox eradication campaign before it, the Initiative has already proved to be a springboard for additional disease-fighting efforts. One notable success is the distribution of vitamin A supplements during polio immunization campaigns. The supplements have saved the lives of an estimated one million children in 60 countries by boosting overall immunity against disease – and saved millions more from blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency.

The Initiative has bolstered cooperation in disease fighting from local to global levels. In some of the poorest countries, it has injected much-needed resources into national health systems, equipping and training thousands of health professionals. It has also broadened support for public health by drawing myriad community groups, businesses and the media. Moreover, parents and communities, many reached for the first time by a public health campaign, are now demanding that their children's right to health care be met.

The Initiative's total international cost through 2005 is less than US $3 billion, no more than what Americans spend every two months on coffee – and less than 0.4 per cent of the US $812 billion the world spent on armaments in 2000. The cost of eradication is also a wise investment. Already, with polio cases down to just a handful, countries around the world are benefiting from reduced costs and gains in economic productivity.

© Sebastião Salgado

Children disabled by polio or other diseases exercise at the Amar Jyoti Rehabilitation and Research Centre in New Delhi.