The fight against eradication of polio worldwide is coming to the end, thanks to a two decade effort by Rotary International (RI), through the Rotary Foundation.
Rotary, a worldwide volunteer service organisation of 1.2 million members made a commitment to immunise the world’s children against polio in 1985 and became a spearheading partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, three years later.
Through a programme called PolioPlus, the first and largest internationally coordinated private-sector support of a public health initiative, Rotary made an initial pledge of $120 million.
As a result, polio cases have fallen by more than 99 per cent. This has prevented five million instances of childhood paralysis and 250,000 deaths.
When Rotary began its eradication work, polio infected more than 350,000 children annually.
In 2007, fewer than 2,000 cases were reported worldwide. Rotary has fundraised relentlessly, advocated for governments to adopt and support PolioPlus and recruited volunteers, who are the foot soldiers who actively ensure that every stage of the struggle is effected.
Due to Rotary’s efforts and those of its partners, by 1996, the list of polio endemic dropped in four countries in 2006; Afghanistan, Nigeria, India and Pakistan. By 2007, Rotary foundation had managed to commit over $630 million. On 26 November 2007, RI and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation boosted the anti-polio war with $200 million.
“When Rotary started talking about polio, people listened,” said the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, William Gates Sr.
The other partners are the World Health Organisation, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF.
The idea to “set up an endowment for the purpose of doing well in the world” was proposed in 1917.
In 1928, the endowment fund was renamed the Rotary Foundation, and it became a distinct entity within Rotary International.
Rotarians who contribute $1,000 over one year towards the fund hence become Paul Harris Fellows, named after the founder of Rotary International, Paul Harris.
This annual programme fund has seen over one million individuals become Paul Harris Fellows.
Apart from the fight against polio, other Rotary Foundation programmes include; the Ambassadorial Scholarships, Group Study Exchange, Awards for Technical Training, and Grants for Activities in Keeping with the Objective of The Rotary Foundation, which was later called Matching Grants.
The Rotary Grants for University Teachers and the Foundation’s peace and conflict studies programmes also benefit.
With over 3,000 clubs in over 200 countries, Rotary reaches out to national governments worldwide to generate crucial financial and technical support for polio eradication among other community service initiatives.
In Rwanda, the Rotary Club of Kigali Virunga, which meets every Wednesday at 7pm at Novotel Umubano, is currently constructing the first public library in Rwanda, located next to the US Embassy in Kacyiru.
In Africa, the Polio plus programme took a new dimension, when Nelson Mandela, helped launch Kick Polio Out of Africa—where players from the African Football Confederation participate in community public awareness campaigns across the continent.
In 2004, 80 million children were targeted—this was the largest coordinated polio immunisation effort on the continent.
The Polio Hall of Fame will induct Rotary International and four other partners in the fight against polio, as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations, this November.
“It promises to be a great day and a great way to recognise what the four global partners are doing,” says Greg Schmieg, Executive Director of the Georgia Department of Labour’s Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, which established the Polio Hall of Fame.
“The fact that polio was pretty much eradicated in this country 50 years ago, doesn’t change the fact that it is still an on-going problem in many parts of the world, and what Rotary and the others have done and continue to do remains a tremendous example that deserves to be honoured,” Schmieg said.
The writer is a member of the Rotaract, a Rotary-sponsored service club for young men and women- ages 18 to 30, and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org