Rotary's mission: Eradicate polio

By Joseph P. Batory

Today, it is hard to imagine that a polio epidemic was occurring here in the USA and around the world during the latter half of the 20th century. How bad was it? Well, even as late as the 1980s, there were 1,000 new cases of this crippling disease every day, internationally.

And so in 1985, Rotary International, one of the world’s premier humanitarian organizations with more than 1.2 million members in 34,000 local Rotary clubs in 200 countries did the unimaginable. Rotary declared war on polio.

Rotary International has been and continues to be the leading private sector organization involved in the fight. Over the past 20+ years, local Rotary members here in the USA and abroad have contributed $1.2 billion for polio vaccine and other necessary eradication resources.

In 1988, Rotary International and its partners, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, forged the global polio eradication initiative to eradicate polio as a global imperative. Additionally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many governments including the United States have generously provided hundreds of millions of dollars of support for this effort.

When Rotary International and its partners launched the polio eradication effort in the late 1980s, 125 countries were polio endemic. Today, only three countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria — are polio endemic. Most recently, in January 2014, India marked three years since its last case of wild polio, a landmark achievement for this global public health and the worldwide effort to eradicate polio in this huge heavily populated nation.

Polio eradication has a four-pronged strategy: national immunization days, routine immunization, mop-up of cases and disease surveillance. Rotary International’s members have been involved in all four phases and have consistently fueled the effort with resources, advocacy and genuine volunteer work on the ground.

More than one million Rotary members have donated their time and personal resources to end polio. Every year, hundreds of Rotary members work side-by-side with health workers to vaccinate children in polio-affected countries. Rotarians work with partners like UNICEF to prepare and distribute mass communication tools to share the message with those isolated by conflict, geography or poverty. Rotary members also recruit fellow volunteers, assist with transporting the vaccine, and provide other logistical support.

The job is almost finished. The number of cases of polio is down by 99 percent. However, polio knows no borders and carriers frequently move from one country to another. The virus can therefore reappear in previously polio-free countries. That is why Rotary International and its partners have been relentless in this fight. If polio isn’t eradicated, the world will continue to live under the threat of the disease and more than 10 million children could be paralyzed in the next 40 years if this effort is not followed to completion.

Rotary’s program to eradicate polio, called PolioPlus, has been Rotary International’s primary effort for over 20 years and has been described as the finest humanitarian project by a nongovernmental organization the world has ever known. Rotary has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has offered this summary of Rotary’s PolioPlus effort: “Rotary has accomplished so much in the face of extraordinary challenges. It has met financial goals, and overcome conflict and lack of security in many countries, and conquered cultural barriers. ... When the final chapter on polio eradication is finally written, it will tell of one of the most spectacular success stories ever in public health and highlight Rotary’s remarkable service to humanity.”

Joseph Batory is the former superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District and a current member of the Rotary Club of Philadelphia. There are 53 Rotary clubs in the Greater Philadelphia area alone and 13 local Rotary clubs in Delaware County.

Originally published on April 28, 2015 in The Delaware County Daily Times, the daily newspaper of Delaware County, PA., covering local, regional, and national news.