What the Rotarians did to help put an end to polio
ROTARY INTERNATIONAL October 2013
It’s tempting to say it all started with Imelda Marcos. But that’s not quite true – it started with a group of businessmen with a connection to the Philippine first lady.
About a quarter-century ago, Rotary International, a service club
that now has 1.2 million members worldwide, decided that instead of
only hosting lunches or building tennis courts, it wanted to take
on a more serious, global challenge.
The Rotarians decided that they could get help to more people, using their massive volunteer power. They persuaded Ms. Marcos (who knew the wife of one of their members) to back mass immunizations and set to work. Within a few years, her country was polio-free. The group still was not satisfied, however. So they did something even more audacious: They created a partnership between a private network of volunteers and a public health initiative.
It was audacious because, back in 1988, world health officials pledged
to eradicate polio. When the Rotarians first approached the World
Health Organization to be a hands-on partner, they got the cold shoulder.
Eventually, Rotary International became an equal partner in polio
eradication along with WHO, Unicef and the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. In the process, it also created a new model
copied by the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Mr.
Gates is also a self-professed fan of the Rotarians.)
“They brought a single-mindedness, continuity, diligence and
generosity that has helped keep the whole initiative on track,”
he says. So much so that an end to the disease may actually be in
sight – one estimate puts the timing at just 16 months away.
Certainly, the numbers so far are impressive: Billions of children
have been vaccinated; the record is 175 million in two days in India.
Last year, there were only 223 reported cases of polio.
Still, at the age of 80, the Cobourg, Ont., doctor keeps going to
the field – no matter the dangers. “The last time I was
in [Karachi] in March, I was vaccinating children with a man with
an AK rifle protecting me.” But as he says, “I saw such
lovely children, and I vaccinated them.” When a Rotarian gets
his mind on something, it’s hard to turn him away. Rotary Launches
Its "Strengthening Rotary" Global Public Image Initiative
/ Opening the door to polio eradication
As a long-time advocate for polio eradication, Richmond-Ahoua knows
you can’t let up against this tenacious and crippling disease.
With Nigeria one of three remaining polio-endemic countries, the possibility
of fresh outbreaks in Côte d’lvoire is a constant threat.
The only way to keep the poliovirus out of the country are regular
immunizations of all children under age five.
“Côte d’lvoire has just experienced a conflict and people are still cautious. They don’t want to open their door to just anyone,” says Richmond-Ahoua. But once they see the polio T-shirts and hats that Rotary clubs supply to identify vaccinators, she says they feel safe opening their doors. Communication is also key to mobilizing public support. Rotary members use the media, television, radio, and even griots, African tribal storytellers, to encourage participation in immunizations. As a result, 7.5 million children received two drops of oral polio vaccine, along with vitamin A supplements and de-worming tablets, during the NIDs.
Supplementary immunization campaigns like this one are part of the
comprehensive 2013-18 Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan.
The plan outlines what is needed to eradicate all polio disease by
2018. In June the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a
new fundraising agreement with Rotary. If successful, the campaign,
which matches donations two-to-one (up to $35 million per year), will
help raise $525 million for polio eradication. “Polio eradication
is not an option, it’s an obligation,” Richmond-Ahoua
says. “When you consider what’s been done in Côte
d’lvoire, despite the many obstacles we’ve faced, you
are deeply convinced that polio will soon be eradicated.”