Why does Rotary work so hard to eradicate Polio?
A mere 60 years ago, every parent in America and the western world lived in fear that their child would be afflicted with the crippling disease of polio. Vaccines developed by Jonas Salk, M.D. and Albert Sabin, M.D. enabled the U.S., Canada and several European countries to become polio free by the early 1990’s. Health officials at the time understood that as long as the polio virus exists, the chance of its transmission elsewhere is highly probable; possibly resulting in the reemergence of the disease in already polio-free areas. The idea of making polio the second infectious disease to be eliminated from the globe after smallpox took hold.
This inspiration caused leaders of Rotary International to begin a multiyear effort to immunize millions of children in the Philippines in 1979. The ultimate success of this project resulted in Rotary making a promise to the world – we will eradicate polio worldwide. This pledge launched the PolioPlus program, the first global project to provide mass vaccinations to children. We had the vaccines, we had the money, we had the volunteers. Early on in this effort, community and tribal leaders in some areas said their villages had matters more critical than polio that needed to be addressed first. Issues like clean water, proper sanitation, and education to name a few. Rotary responded by providing grants and volunteers to dig wells, install toilets, build schools and vocational training facilities among other endeavors to address those needs. As projects were completed, leaders realized Rotary cared; and they allowed health workers to come in and provide the vaccines. In many parts of the world, access to clean water, improved sanitation and hygiene, and a basic education are available thanks to Rotary International.
Rotary International and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) have made great strides since 1988 in their sustained effort to address these challenges and to end polio forever. Polio cases have dropped by 99.9 percent, from 350,000 cases in 1988 in 125 countries to 176 cases of wild poliovirus in 2019 in just two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. In August 2020, the World Health Organization declared the African region – all 47 countries – free of the wild poliovirus, a major milestone towards Rotary’s quest for a polio-free world.
Many families in other countries continue to live in fear of this crippling disease. In these impoverished parts of the world where the wild poliovirus exists, the chance of its transmission elsewhere by travelers remains highly probable.
Steadfast, Rotary its GPEI partners remain optimistic. The Rotarian magazine recently included an informative article, The Plus in PolioPlus which highlights a few of the benefits of this program - disease prevention, access to clean water, job creation and improvements in health care. The writer concludes “…the legacy of PolioPlus is more than eradicating a deadly disease from the planet — it’s also building a stronger health system that provides better access to lifesaving interventions for the world’s most vulnerable children.”
Most recently, the valuable lessons learned from the PolioPlus campaign have been utilized to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic which has temporarily halted all global vaccination efforts. The research facilities built for disease analysis, the infrastructure and partnerships created to improve lives, and the surveillance systems designed to locate infected persons are currently being used by polio staff and local health care workers to contain the spread of this devastating virus. Mike McGovern, Chair of the Rotary International PolioPlus Committee and John Germ, Past Rotary International President and Chair of the Polio Countdown to History Committee recently reported that “Globally, the polio surveillance network is being trained on Covid case detection, contact tracing, laboratory testing and data management.”
When folks ask why Rotary continues funding polio eradication when there are more urgent issues to be addressed; remind them of all that Rotary International and our GPEI partners have done thus far;
Over 20 million people are alive and walking today who would otherwise have died or been paralyzed. Plus countless others now have access to clean water, schools, vocational opportunities and healthcare facilities, as a result of this effort. Be proud of all that we have accomplished because of the PolioPlus program.
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