De Quadros, who believes polio can be beaten, said it has resurged in regions with scant resources, where "we are not having sufficient funds to apply the tools we do have." Rees said one of the major obstacles to further reducing the number of cases worldwide has been "the quality of our health services in our poorest countries," where there aren't enough people on the ground to provide needed vaccinations.
Ghani said 30 years of conflict have prevented access for 25 percent of people in those regions. He said he had discussed with Pakistan's army the idea of having soldiers distribute vaccines in hard-to-reach areas. Although vaccination refusals in the regions have dropped from 3 percent to 0.6 percent this year, they remain a significant hurdle.
Last Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to double the United Kingdom's contribution to fighting polio in the next two years, but that gift is conditional on other governments matching it 5-to-1, Gates said. The increase would enable 45 million more children to be fully vaccinated, advancing the goal of providing life-saving immunizations to every child who needs them.
But whether polio, like smallpox, can be driven from the planet remains to be seen. The World Health Organization sought to banish polio by 2000; other organizations set the goal for 2005. Those dates came and went, due largely to the hardiness of the poliovirus, which can survive several months in water and in human waste; the vulnerability of vaccines to temperature extremes; and the lack of sophisticated health services in countries where polio continues to spread.
But Gates, who has been a cheerleader for polio-fighting, came to New York to trumpet some successes. He noted that polio cases in Nigeria declined from 388 in 2009 to 19 last year, and in India from 741 cases in 2009 to 41 last year.
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the morning came when Sawyer invited world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, who contracted polio at the age of 4 and uses crutches today, to provide his perspective on how to sell the public on finishing the job started by FDR, Sabin, Salk and O'Connor.
"Two letters: PR," the Emmy- and Grammy-winning soloist and conductor said from the back row. "There's a kind of PR with intensity that's needed," Perlman said, pointing out how athletes and celebrity spokespersons have raised awareness of many diseases.
"We should take the fruits of science and technology and say this is a problem we can fix," Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who flew in for the occasion, told ABC News. "We're so close."