San Juan Rotarians are helping write polio’s final chapter

It isn’t every organization that receives a $100 million matching grant from the Gates Foundation. Then again, Rotary International isn’t just any organization.

By Mary Kalbert

It isn’t every organization that receives a $100 million matching grant from the Gates Foundation. Then again, Rotary International isn’t just any organization.

It is comprised of more than a million volunteers that committed to a multi-decade plan to immunize the world’s children against polio, one of the world’s most dreaded diseases.

Who are we?

Rotary International was the first entity to have a vision of a polio-free world — and that began in 1985. That foresight sparked the Global Polio Eradication Initiative that began in 1988.

Rotarians are the volunteer arm of a global partnership which include, as public partners, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Rotary’s role on this team has been a model for public/private partnerships worldwide.

What do we do?

Rotarians around the globe transport vaccine via cars, helicopters, horses, canoes, rickshaws, camels and on foot. We build and equip laboratories that track the disease and contribute medical supplies, mobilize communities and conduct National Immunization Days (NID).

For example, in India, on a February day in 2006, tens of thousands of Rotarians and a myriad of health volunteers joined the Indian government in immunizing 170 million children in a six-day period — signaling the largest public health event ever held in the world.

We interrupt wars, in countries such as The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Afghanistan. Embattled and in conflict, they agreed to lay down their arms on a “Day of Tranquility” so children in the war zones (8.8, 5.4, and 5.7 million respectively) could be immunized against polio.

What have we done?

Rotarians have provided $620 million, and worked with governments and public health partners globally. Two billion children have been immunized, millions spared disability and untold deaths averted in 122 countries due to these combined efforts.

Since we began in 1985, the number of polio-endemic countries has declined from 125 to only four — Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. The number of polio cases has been reduced 99 percent.

The Americas were declared polio-free in 1994, the Western Pacific region in 2000 and Europe in 2002.

Why do we do it?

Because Rotarians have long believed in commitment to the generations that succeed us, that great work requires great sacrifice and shows that lives can indeed be changed one drop of oral vaccine at a time.

What will we do now?

The San Juan Island Rotary Club, in conjunction with the other 32,000 clubs across the globe, know the world stands firmly on the threshold of victory thanks to Rotary International and its partners in the last two decades. But we still have four countries to go, and with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates, committed volunteers and donors, we will succeed.

As a part of this effort, our local Rotary Club will earmark all the proceeds of the 2008 Fourth of July “Rock the Dock” family party and street dance to the final eradication of polio.

— Mary Kalbert is former president of the San Juan Island Rotary Club