Rotarians Ending Polio

What the Rotarians did to help put an end to polio



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.
One of their members thought about polio: The disease had once made hundreds of thousands of people sick, leaving them paralyzed or breathing through horrifying “iron lungs,” and in many cases eventually killing them. But vaccinations changed all that – for those who could get them.

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.
But as Robert Scott, a Canadian doctor now in charge of Rotary International’s polio efforts, recounts, when the group raised $247-million (U.S.), “the interest increased.”

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.)
The Rotary’s partnership was not just about raising money, though, although it has done that in spades – $1.2-billion (U.S.) so far. As Bruce Aylward, another Canadian physician and the assistant director-general of polio eradication and emergencies for WHO, explains, the organization also contributed through passion and focus.

“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.
But Dr. Scott is not resting on his laurels. In developed countries, there is ongoing tension between health officials and parents who do not believe in vaccinations. And there are still countries elsewhere in the world at great risk, putting “the virus only a plane ride away,” he says. Violence also keeps many volunteers from doing public work. “There are huge areas in northern Pakistan we are not able to reach,” he says.

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

It’s been more than two years since the last polio case was reported in Côte d’lvoire. Time enough for people to become complacent about immunizations. But that would be a mistake – a potentially deadly mistake.
“The public sometimes doesn’t understand why, after so many rounds of polio immunization, they are still being asked to bring their children to the immunization post,” says Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua, chair of Rotary’s National PolioPlus Committee in Côte d’lvoire.

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.
During National Immunization Days (NIDs) in April, thousands of volunteers and health workers, together with Rotary and Rotaract members, canvassed the streets throughout the country in search of children to immunize. They traveled from house to house knocking on doors in shantytowns and rural villages. But gaining entrance to these homes required another round of convincing.

“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.”

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