October 24, 2019. Today we joined Rotarians from all around the world as we celebrated World Polio Day. The Rotary quest to eradicate polio has been underway for over thirty years. Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus. It enters the body through the GI tract. It affects the nervous system and can cause permanent paralysis, even death. It is easily spread through person to person contact. It thrives in unsanitary conditions. A major problem is that only 72% of people with polio ever have any signs of paralysis. This makes it impossible to tell who a carrier of the disease might be. This allows the disease to spread rapidly through a community.
Polio is not a new disease. Some people believe to have found evidence dating back to ancient Egypt. It became an increasing concern in the US in the late 1800s and continued with widespread outbreaks throughout the first half of the 20th century. Then came Jonas Salk in the mid-fifties with his life-saving vaccine which was widely available by 1957. The vaccine was given routinely by the early 1960s. Polio in the United States became a thing of the past sometime in the 70s. Not so in the rest of the world. The disease was still endemic in well over 100 countries.
The Rotary connection began in the Philippines. A Rotary-inspired campaign there was so successful that it led to other Rotary pilot programs in Haiti, Morocco, Cambodia, and other places. Then, in 1985, RI announced something called PolioPlus. The idea was to give the vaccine to every child in the world thereby eliminating the disease. They proposed a campaign to raise $120 million to fund the plan. Three years later, at the RI Convention in Philadelphia, it was revealed that the campaign had raised $247 million; more than twice the goal. Everybody celebrated. Partnerships were formed with WHO, the CDC, and UNICEF.
Nobody had any idea how inadequate $247 million would be. How could they? Polio is easy to prevent. The vaccine is cheap. It is easily transported. You don't have to have any medical knowledge to administer the vaccine. Anybody can do it. All it takes is two drops in the child's mouth. Yes, it is easy to prevent polio, but it is hard to change cultures. Nobody saw the vast geographic and cultural hurdles ahead. Still, the campaign continued and was successful. In 2003, Bill and Melinda Gates entered the picture. The partnership with the Gates Foundation produced hundreds of millions of dollars. Since 2013 they have matched every Rotary dollar with two of their own. Overall, Rotarians have managed to raise over $1 billion dollars for the polio campaign. That's over $1 billion raised by volunteers!
And the results: In 1988 there were still 350,000 cases of polio every year. It was endemic in 125 countries. Today, those cases have been reduced by 99.9% There were 33 cases in 2018. All of which were in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. So, the campaign continues. The good news is that it has been spectacularly successful! It is estimated that over 17 million cases of polio related paralysis have been avoided. Think about that. Over 17 million children did NOT become paralyzed and we do indeed have a world that is this close to being rid of polio. Make no mistake about it. Without Rotary, it doesn't happen. So, on behalf of the children of the world, thank you Rotary.