The following article was first published in the “View from Lyme Regis” newspaper, and in 13 sister newspapers around Dorset, Devon and Somerset. Our thanks to the newspaper group, Pulmans and in particular to MD and Editor, Philip Evans, for kindly agreeing to promote this superb Rotary achievement and of course, Rotary itself.
It is perhaps not widely known that Rotary has played a leading role in helping to reduce polio worldwide by 99 percent since its first project to vaccinate 6 million children in the Philippines in 1979. Then, in 1985, Rotary launched an initiative called PolioPlus to free the entire world from polio, by the mass vaccination of children.
Many will remember family and friends stricken with this debilitating disease and the considerable life changes endured by its victims. At its height, polio had paralysed or killed up to half a million people a year before a vaccine was discovered in 1955. In 1961 an oral vaccine was invented and the UK launched the national immunisation programme in schools.
So where are we now? There have been no domestically acquired cases in the UK since 1982 and worldwide, there have been only 41 new polio cases so far this year. That’s about 1 per week, down from 7000 new cases per week in 1988 when Rotary was joined by the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, and the UK and US Governments to formulate, fund and resource the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the largest public health initiative the world has ever known. Whilst polio had disappeared in the UK, US, Australia and much of Europe by this time it remained prevalent in more than 125 countries.
Polio is a highly infectious viral disease which mainly affects young children causing spinal and respiratory paralysis; it can kill and remains incurable to this day. Polio is spread through contaminated water or food or by way of an infected person’s saliva. Whilst incurable, polio is completely vaccine-preventable. However, only once before had a major virus based illness been eliminated worldwide, that was smallpox in 1980.
The task, to reach an unparalleled number of the world’s poorest and disadvantaged children, was considerable with many barriers including cultural and religious resistance, geographic isolation, poor public infrastructure and all of the problems associated with identifying and tracking children in hostile war torn areas in Africa and Asia. Funding has been, and still is, the greatest challenge, and is provided by many contributors, chief amongst which are Rotary International and the UK and US Governments. In 2008 The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenged Rotary to raise $200 million in 2 years and promised to match it. Rotary succeeded, the Foundation matched the $228million raised, and in 2013 agreed to match 2 for 1 every dollar raised by Rotarians up to $35 million per year until 2018, a commitment of over $500 million. Rotary is meeting this challenge!
Rotary is a voluntary International service organisation comprising some 1.2 million members worldwide. Rotary has contributed more than £1 billion (the largest private sector donor) and countless volunteer hours to immunise more than 2.5 billion children in 125 countries. Rotarians from clubs around the world, including many from the UK, working alongside locals and UNICEF volunteers, continue to travel abroad to be involved in immunisation work and donate money to the PolioPlus program. Rotary has consistently fuelled the effort with resources, advocacy and genuine hard work on the ground, maintaining the dream of a polio-free world and bringing polio to the brink of eradication.
Their work has brought many additional benefits. The polio immunisation campaign has
become a critical vehicle for delivering other health services to children. Vitamin A capsules are often given along with polio drops. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, polio vaccinators also supported the country’s first birth registration campaign. Health systems and facilities
strengthened by polio eradication campaigns have been used to hold measles immunisation campaigns. Community education work funded by polio donors has boosted basic health and hygiene awareness in the world’s poorest communities.
For as little as 40 pence, a child can be protected against this crippling disease for life. But polio isn’t yet beaten. Cases exist today in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a recent outbreak in Ukraine has emphasised the need for continued vigilance, action and of course cash – through to 2018 some £3 billion is needed for continued inoculation to guarantee elimination in Africa and Asia (scientists will certify eradication only after 3 clear years). Recent cases have also highlighted the need for different injection based methods using dead poliovirus (rather than oral ones which use a weakened poliovirus).
We can’t stop now, the last percent is always the toughest and if we don’t finish the job polio could return with a vengeance. According to WHO more than 10 million children under the age of 5 could be paralysed by the disease in the next 40 years if we lower our guard.
Will it all have been worth it? The full cost of eradication will likely reach around £10 billion by 2018, the year that scientists believe that polio will finally be beaten. Millions of lives have been saved, millions more will not suffer the debilitating effects of this terrible disease, millions more will benefit from the related health programmes – the answer is, emphatically – YES!
But no time for celebration yet! Rotary and its partners will continue to strive for a polio free world…………….
…………..we are now “this close”!
If you wish to contribute to PolioPlus please visit https://www.rotary.org/myrotary/en/take-action/end-polio and click ‘Give Now’
John Bartlett, Rotary Club of Lyme Regis