North Shore Weekend, March 8, 2014
Last year there were just 404 reported cases of polio worldwide, mostly in Africa, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The dream of eradicating polio is closer than ever to reality.
For that astonishing achievement – only one serious disease, smallpox, has ever been totally wiped out – a great deal of the credit must go to Evanston-based Rotary International.
As Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, a major supporter of Rotary’s polio eradication effort, succinctly put it: “Without Rotary, this polio campaign wouldn’t be anywhere.”
Rotary has been targeting polio since 1979. At that time there were an estimated half a million cases a year worldwide in 125 countries, many in places with little if any viable public health infrastructure and faced with huge challenges such as poverty, poor sanitation, illiteracy and overcrowding.
But then-Rotary president Clem Renouf and Rotary district leader Dr. John Severs, a physician with the National Institutes of Health, came to two important realizations. Polio vaccine was relatively inexpensive, and it could be delivered orally, thus enabling volunteers with minimal training to administer it. Rotary was celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1979, and Renouf concluded polio eradication was a cause that could rally Rotarians and make an important, even historic contribution to public health.
After six years of successful regional campaigns, in 1985 Rotary launched its PolioPlus program, which aimed to immunize every newborn child in the world. “By 1988 we had raised almost $250 million, more than twice our original goal,” said Carol Pandak, PolioPlus director.
In partnership with the World Health Organization, Unicef and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and Prevention and working with Dr. Albert Sabin, the developer of the oral polio vaccine, Rotary started to make significant headway in country after country.
An important milestone was reached two years ago. At the 2012 annual Rotary Convention in Bangkok, WHO assistant director general Bruce Aylward acknowledged the difficulties of tackling polio in Third World and newly industrialized countries. Nevertheless, he said dramatically, “Ladies and gentlemen, today India is polio-free! A polio-free India is a magnificent achievement – and it is Rotary’s achievement!”
“Rotary showed it was feasible to enlist volunteers who could immunize children and support the delivery of vaccine,” explained Pandak. As a highly professional and well-established global service organization, she added, “we could utilize our business and organizational skills to manage large-scale global immunization campaigns.”
Rotary volunteers also help by fundraising, advocating with local governments and encouraging people to participate in local immunization campaigns, Pandak said.
“Rotary’s accomplishment has been huge,” said Northwestern University’s Dr. Rob Murphy, Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering and director of the Center for Global Health. He was contacted several years ago by Rotary to help with challenges in Nigeria, where he has more than a decade of experience.
As an example of the difficulties the campaign faced, Murphy cited the lack of cooperation from some imams in northern Nigeria. “Their distrust of anything Western was contributing to continued outbreaks. The solution was ingenious: a vaccine manufacturer was found in Indonesia, a Muslim country, with whom the imams were comfortable, thus allowing the vaccine product into Nigeria.”
Public health breaks down wherever there is strife, he added. “The public health sector in war-torn countries like Syria simply collapses.”
Nevertheless, Rotary’s campaign has succeeded for several reasons, said Pandak. “With officials and trained volunteers around the globe, we can connect with the right authorities, and with more than a million members in 170 countries, we have the resources and manpower to get thing done.”
As WHO’s Aylward acknowledged, “Rotary has proven again and again that its [worldwide members] are much better than us, your partners, when it comes to the political and societal challenges.”
Rotary was founded in Chicago in 1905 and grew from a single club to more than 34,000 today, said a Rotary spokesman. The organization moved to Evanston in 1954 – originally to a 50,000-square foot site it purchased at Ridge and Davis. By the 1980s, Rotary had outgrown that space, so it bought the current 18-floor high-rise at Sherman and Grove, formerly the home of American Hospital Supply, and moved there in 1987.
Today the Evanston headquarters staff numbers 518 people. Rotary also has offices in Sao Paulo; Zurich; Tokyo; Seoul; New Delhi; Buenos Aires; Parramatta, Australia; and Pune, India. In total there are 761 employees worldwide.
With polio nearly vanquished, Rotary is looking to new challenges. Pandak cited six focus areas: peace and conflict prevention/resolution, disease prevention and treatment, water and sanitation, maternal and child health, basic education and literacy, economic and community development.
Asked if that wasn’t a lot to bite off, she responded: “We’ve shown we can do it before. Only the biggest missions really stir the soul.”
In the meantime, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative continues. “We still immunize 400 million children a year,” she said. “The work can never stop until we achieve our goal.”
This is the original article; the one published was slightly shorter.