Rotary helped put polio eradication on center stage on the day best known for rallying support to finish the job – World Polio Day, 24 October.
A special Livestream presentation – World Polio Day: Making History – showcased the progress of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Co-hosted by Rotary and the Northwestern University Center for Global Health, the 60-minute program took place before a live audience at the John Hughes Auditorium on Northwestern’s Chicago campus and streamed online to viewers worldwide.
RI President Ron Burton kicked off the event by noting that Rotary began immunizing millions of children against polio in the 1970s, first in the Philippines and then in other high-risk countries.
“Polio rates in those countries plummeted,” Burton said. “As a result, in 1988, Rotary, the World Health Organization [WHO], UNICEF, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came together to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. More recently, the initiative has benefited from the tremendous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation . . . . It is so very important to finish the job.”
Dr. Robert Murphy, director of Northwestern’s Center for Global Health, emphasized that polio eradication “is completely doable. . . . [It] will result in preventing billions of cases of paralysis and death, saving billions of dollars, assuring that no parent in the world will have to worry about this terrible disease ever again.”
Dennis Ogbe, polio survivor, Paralympian, and ambassador for the United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign to promote child immunization, spoke compellingly about the challenges of living with the disease and the opportunity to protect people from it for all generations to come.
“I have learned not to look at anything as impossible, and that includes, especially, the eradication of polio,” said Ogbe, who was born in Nigeria. “We have come a long way since the start. So let us finish strong and End Polio Now.”
Dr. Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general for Polio, Emergencies, and Country Collaboration at WHO, emphasized that the global fight is winnable, noting that the number of cases in the endemic countries –Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan – is down 40 percent in 2013, compared to the same period in 2012. He also said that the type 2 wild poliovirus has been eradicated, and said November will mark one year without a case of type 3 virus anywhere in the world.
Aylward also pinpointed challenges to the global initiative, including the outbreak in the Horn of Africa with 200 cases. Because of the strong response to the outbreak, however, the region “is again rapidly becoming polio free,” he said. Moreover, the polio endgame strategic plan, if fully funded, is equipped to stop such outbreaks.
“Today, all children everywhere can have a better future, not just against polio, but against every disease . . . if we as a global society get behind the vision of Rotary 25 years ago to reach every child with something as simple as polio vaccine.”
The World Polio Day event also featured a short video showing the tireless efforts by health workers and Rotarians to immunize children in Pakistan. “We are very optimistic that the challenges will not be able to deter us and soon Pakistan will become polio free,” said Pakistan PolioPlus Committee chair Aziz Memon in narrating the video.
Event moderator and Canadian Rotary member Jennifer Jones encouraged people to donate to the End Polio Now, Make History Today fundraising campaign, which makes contributions work three times as hard with matching funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She also invited everyone to join the more than 50,000 people in 150 countries who have expressed their support for a polio-free world by becoming part of the World’s Biggest Commercial.
Emmy Award-winning actress Archie Panjabi spoke passionately about why she is so committed to her work as a Rotary ambassador for polio eradication.
“When I was a child 10 years old, I went to India. As I walked to school, I would see children younger than me with no [use of their] limbs, begging for money,” Panjabi said. “It broke my heart.”
Inspired as an adult to learn more about polio, she was “amazed by the amount of work that Rotary has done,” in helping India be free of the disease since 2011, and joined a team of Rotary volunteers to immunize children there last year.
“I will do whatever I can to support Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative . . . . And if you do whatever you can, then together we can eradicate polio forever.”
Jones challenged the audience and online viewers everywhere to share their voice for polio eradication with friends and followers on social networks and encourage them to do the same. “And write or email your government officials to urge them to commit the resources we need to finish the job,” she said.
“We need you – and we want you to help us make history!”