On World Polio Day a flashback

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In 1955, Dr Jonas Edward Salk developed a polio vaccine that was certified as ‘safe and effective’ and five years later, the US government licensed the Oral Polio vaccine developed by Dr Albert Sabin. In 1979, Rotary began its fight against polio with a project to immunise 6 million children in the Philippines.

In 1985, Rotary International launched PolioPlus, the first and largest internationally coordinated private sector support for a public health initiative, with an initial fundraising target of $120 million. In a response that was an eye-opener for the world, Rotarians raised $240 million for polio eradication. This made the world sit up and recognise the power of Rotary. In 1988, RI and World Health Organisation launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. At that time there were over 350,000 polio cases in more than 125 countries. In 2009, Rotary’s total contribution to polio eradication touched $800 million. Bill and Melinda Gates pledged $355 million and challenged Rotarians to raise $200 million. This would eventually result in a combined fundraise of $555 million in support of the polio eradication initiative.

In 2012, India was removed from the list of polio-endemic countries after going for a year without any new polio cases. In 2014, India completed three years without any new cases, and the WHO certified the entire Southeast Asia region polio-free. In 2019, Nigeria completed three years without new polio cases. Today, only Afghanistan and Pakistan remain to be freed of polio.

Yet, Rotary cannot sit back and rest. If we do not completely eradicate polio in the next 10 years, there is the horrendous possibility of 200,000 new cases across the world every year; 99 per cent success can become 100 per cent failure!

What was expected to be a 10-year effort has taken more than 35 years. During the peak of the campaign, even the formidable LTTE agreed to a ceasefire in Sri Lanka to enable polio immunisation. Today, as Afghanistan stands at a turning point in its troubled history, the Taliban has extended its hand of cooperation so that every Afghan child is immunised.

On World Polio Day, I urge every Rotarian and Rotary club across the world to remember that polio eradication is what the world will thank Rotary for. We must accomplish the task. We must eradicate polio from the face of the earth, forever.

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Dr Mahesh Kotbagi
RI Director, 2021–23

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