John Hoffmire: Polio is a complicated and contentious foe

Published: Monday, Sept. 9 2013 4:05 p.m. MDT

On 29 July, a child receives a dose of oral polio vaccine during the UNICEF-supported measles and polio immunization campaign under way in the Ifo refugee camp in North Eastern Province, near the Kenya-Somalia border. The camp for Somalia refugees is among three that comprise the Dadaab camps, located near the town of Dadaab in Garissa District.

Rotary International

“Whatever else happens, this child will not be crippled by polio” is just one of the thoughts that go through your mind as you deliver the drops that prevent polio. With that thought and the fact that more than 350,000 cases of polio were diagnosed annually in the world in 1988, Rotary International, a humanitarian organization made up of nearly 1.2 million members in more than 200 countries, began a process to purge polio from the planet.

The world is now, 25 years later, on the verge of eliminating one of the most dreaded diseases of the 20th century — poliomyelitis. Even today, children in some developing countries continue to fall victim to the disease. But thanks in large part to Rotary International, the disease may soon be all but a memory.

Rotary partnered with WHO (World Health Organization), UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to save the lives of children everywhere. To date, Rotary clubs worldwide have contributed $1.2 billion to the protection of more than 2 billion children in 122 countries.

Since 1995, donor governments have contributed in excess of $6 billion to polio eradication, due in part to Rotary’s advocacy efforts. But much more is needed. More than 20 years of steady progress is at stake, and polio — now on the ropes — stands to stage a dangerous comeback unless the funding gap is bridged.

“We’re at a critical point in the fight to end polio. … Rotarians are spending not only money out of their pockets and raising money in the community, but they've also spent a considerable amount of their own money and time to go to these countries and help with the vaccination efforts," said John Germ, vice chairman of fund development for the Rotary International PolioPlus Committee.

Today, there are only three countries in the world where polio still breeds, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Outbreaks occur elsewhere from time to time, and nearly all of those cases can be traced back to these three countries.

In a recent article published by Donald G. McNeil Jr. in the New York Times, it was noted that “polio, a disease that has been on the brink of extinction for years, is facing serious setbacks on two continents. The virus is surging in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, which had been largely free of cases for several years. And a new outbreak has begun in a part of Pakistan that a warlord declared off limits to vaccinators 14 months ago.”

According to an article by Megan Ferringer published in the Rotarian magazine in May 2013, “obstacles persist in the final battle for worldwide eradication, and the disease has proved to be a complicated, contentious foe. … The small drops of vaccine, administered to save children’s lives, become a source of fear, and as suspicion and hostility grow, immunizers can become targets."

Workers who travel in these dangerous areas to deliver the life-saving drops have been killed. More than 20 such volunteers in the past year alone were murdered. Yet because the volunteers care, they persist.

Because of such persistence and focus, in June of this year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary helped fund the campaign with another $535 million pledged for the future.

Volunteers such as Rotary International’s past district governor Craig Wilson (Arizona) have given the drops to children in Sonora, Mexico, while at the same time contributing dollars to the campaign. “I have been a part of this effort since inception but until I actually gave the drops I did not appreciate the magnitude of the effect I made that day,” he said.

Once eradicated, polio will join smallpox as one of only two diseases ever eliminated. And the volunteers of Rotary will continue their humanitarian work, living up to its motto, “service above self.”

John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.

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