Posted by Paddy Rooney on Oct 24, 2019
It was in 1988 that Rotary International, an organization comprised of some 1.2 million members throughout the world, turned its attention to the fight against Polio. The plan was to begin by immunizing 6 million children in the Philippines and, after that initial success, to move across the globe in what came to be the largest internationally coordinated private sector support of a public health initiative. Today, working with our partners such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio reducing the cases by 99.9% world-wide. What that means is that, through our vaccination program, a disease which at one time paralyzed more than 1,000 people, most of them young children, worldwide every day has now been reduced to less than 100 cases year to date in just two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are not yet Polio free. We are, as we say in Rotary, this close to ending this disease, only the second disease to be eliminated completely in the history of humankind. The battle is not yet completely won, indeed the rates have risen slightly this year due to misinformation being spread about the vaccination program but we in Rotary are committed to seeing it through to the end and so are currently raising some $150 million dollars a year in order to wipe this disease from the face of the earth.
But this work is only the beginning. When we started this effort we worked together with the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) to help found the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and together we put together the world-wide system that has enabled us to tackle this issue of Polio. The battle has almost been won because that system is made up of millions of volunteers and health workers who immunize children in hard-to-reach communities and establish real-time global monitoring and response capacity. The massive infrastructure that's been created, which now encompasses millions of trained health workers as well as best practices and knowledge, is now being used to combat other infectious diseases and to undertake other critical health interventions.
Why tackle other diseases when we have not yet finished the fight against Polio? Because we know that, apart from Polio, there are an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths worldwide from vaccine-preventable diseases that also need to be addressed by closing immunization gaps and that there are some 20 million unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children in our world today.
 The extensive polio-eradication infrastructure created by Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative provides a model for this effort. If we did it for Polio we can use that same system to address these other vaccine preventable diseases going forward. Rotary and its partners are looking to carry out a legacy health plan which will ensure that the knowledge generated and the lessons learned from years of polio eradication activities are shared with other health initiatives.
In its efforts to deliver the polio vaccine to the hardest-to-reach and most vulnerable populations in the world, Rotary and its partners have learned valuable lessons about overcoming barriers. As a result, polio workers have been able to deliver additional health services, including deworming medication, vitamin A supplements, measles mortality-reduction activities, bednets to prevent malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases and routine immunizations. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s innovative methods include detailed micro-planning and mapping, the tracking of migrant groups, social mobilization programs, and systematic training and deployment of vaccination teams. All of these tactics can be applied to other health initiatives.
Indeed, supporting other health initiatives has been a key component of Rotary's strategy since it launched its PolioPlus program in 1985. Rotary has consistently delivered the "plus" along with polio vaccine, supporting efforts to protect children from other diseases, malnutrition, and other afflictions. In 2017, the number of children immunized was 116.2 million – the highest ever reported. Since 2010, 113 countries have introduced new vaccines and more than 20 million additional children have been vaccinated. But despite gains, all of the targets for disease elimination—including measles, rubella, and maternal and neonatal tetanus—are behind schedule, and over the last two years the world has seen multiple outbreaks of measles, diphtheria and various other vaccine-preventable diseases. Most of the children missing out are those living in the poorest, marginalized and conflict-affected communities.
GPEI receives regular polio reports from its vast surveillance network of laboratories, which identify and investigate reported polio cases anywhere in the world. That network and response system has been tapped to handle outbreaks of other diseases, including measles, tetanus, meningitis, and yellow fever. It also assisted in the global response to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS; to floods in Pakistan in 2010-11; and to the tsuami in Southeast Asia in 2004. More recently, Nigeria used the infrastructure and surveillance system to end the deadly Ebola outbreak there.
Why does immunization matter? Very simply because expanding access to immunization is vital for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, poverty reduction and universal health coverage throughout the world. Routine immunization provides a point of contact for health care at the beginning of life and offers every child the chance at a healthy life from the earliest beginnings and into old age. Immunization is also a fundamental strategy in achieving other health priorities, from controlling viral hepatitis, to curbing antimicrobial resistance, and providing a platform for adolescent health and improving antenatal and newborn care.
For 30 years, Rotarians have worked tirelessly to eradicate polio from 99 percent of the world. Our efforts have not only ended polio in 122 countries but they've also created a roadmap for the world to tackle a myriad of other health priorities throughout the world. This is something of which all Rotarians can be proud. But the fight is not over. There is more to be done and we pledge to continue working with all our partners until we accomplish our goals.
Thank you!!