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Rotary International, the unsung hero in the fight against polio

Rotary International, the unsung hero in the fight against polio

By Michael Effiong

 

The celebration was everywhere. There were smiles all round and of course encomiums where showered when it became known that Nigeria has recorded its first full year without a single case of Poliomyelitis (polio), the paralyzing and potentially fatal disease. One organisation that was not lavishly praised for this feat was Rotary International

For those who don’t know, Rotary is an international service organization whose stated purpose is to bring together business and professional leaders in order to provide humanitarian services, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world. It is a secular organization open to all people regardless of race, colour, creed, religion, gender, or political preference. Rotary’s primary motto is “Service Above Self”. Its distinguish insignia is the golden wheel.

It can be said that Rotary is not like the proverbial lizard, who nods its head in appreciation of its feat after jumping down a tree. The organization’s utmost focus has always been to change lives and impact society and therefore singing its praise is usually not high on its agenda, but this is one victory that should not go without some applause for this organization because it is indeed the unsung hero in the successes being experienced so far in the fight against polio.

Why is it so important to rid the world of Polio?. The poliovirus invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. It can strike at any age but mainly affects children under five. Polio is incurable, but completely vaccine-preventable. Because of its negative impact on society, ending polio is indeed critical.

It was because of Polio’s permanent health implication on victims and the overall impact on society that Rotary International launched the PolioPlus initiative in 1985. On record, this was the first deliberate and targeted programme to tackle global polio eradication through mass vaccination of children.

As at today, Rotary has contributed more than $1.3 billion and countless volunteer hours to immunize more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries. In addition, Rotary’s advocacy efforts have played a role in decisions by donor governments to contribute more than $9 billion to the effort.

It is on record that more than one million Rotary members have donated their time and personal resources to end polio and every year, hundreds of Rotary members work side-by-side with health workers to vaccinate children in polio-affected countries.

It was three years after Rotary’s effort that The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed in 1988. This is a public-private partnership that includes Rotary, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and governments of the world.

This new initiative began the regime that ensured that every dollar Rotary commits to polio eradication is matched two-to-one by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which is up to $35 million a year through 2018. These funds help to provide much-needed operational support, medical personnel, laboratory equipment, and educational materials for health workers and parents.

Rotary’s focus is advocacy, fundraising, volunteer recruitment and awareness-building and the three critical countries after years of work were Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

It was not an easy road to success. Nigeria for example had struggled to contain polio since some northern states imposed vaccine bans and religious leaders in the that part, which was worst hit by the virus, claiming that the vaccines were contaminated by western powers to spread sterility and HIV/Aids among Muslims. This was a tough road to navigate considering how touchy people are with their culture, traditions and beliefs.

So it took a lot of work to change these pre-conceived ideas, and it is heart-warming to have seen President Muhammadu Buhari personally administering immunization to one of his grandchildren the other day. This sort of image, of opinion leaders identifying with the cause, was key to winning the battle as was the case in 2009 when traditional rulers were compelled by government to endorse the polio immunization drive.

As a result of the work of Rotary and other partners, less than 370 polio cases were confirmed worldwide in 2014, which is a reduction of more than 99 percent since the 1980s, when the world saw about 1,000 cases per day.

In Nigeria, the TY Danjuma Foundation has also become a key partner that has helped the polio fight and it was no surprise that the Nigeria PolioPlus Committee hosted a “Thank you” dinner for the Foundation earlier this year.

Moving from hundreds of cases a day to zero as at today is a massive improvement to health care delivery in Nigeria and it was in a bid to sustain that momentum that Rotary launched the ThisClose campaign. Bill Gates and Desmond Tutu were used as ThisClose ambassadors to help educate the public about polio through public service announcements, social media and public appearances which has contributed to the success story of the campaign. Public awareness is key because until polio is eradicated, all countries remain at risk of outbreaks.

Despite the 12 months polio-free situation in Nigeria, Rotary International is not resting on its oars, in fact, according to The Chairman, Nigeria National PolioPlus Committee, Dr Tunji Funsho, himself a Rotarian, though it’s a time of great happiness, but we don’t want to celebrate prematurely.There is need for robust surveillance system and strengthened routine immunization because it’s not yet over until Nigeria remains Polio free for another two years.

Surely, Rotary International is not taking its eyes off the ball, that is why I am urging all to join its effort to ensure that we end polio in 2018.

Michael Effiong, a Lagos-based Journalist is a member, Rotary Club of Ikeja South

 

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