The push to eradicate Polio

Amit - is one of the millions of polio victims who scrape an existence in India


Amit was begging outside the Taj Mahal in Agra when I met him. He was wearing sandals on his hands because crawling was his only method of transport. The lower half of his body was quite distorted because on one side he supported himself with his right knee and on the other side with his left foot. I learnt that he was 28 years old and lived on the streets because he had no permanent home. He was 2 years old when he was diagnosed with polio which had paralysed his right leg and destroyed his chance of enjoying a normal life. Ironically, I was there in India as a Rotary volunteer to help dispense the vaccine which protects children from the virus which crippled Amit all those years ago because someone failed to take him to be immunised when he was a baby. 

Scattered across thousands of villages, towns and cities on the Indian Sub Continent are many million such human faces of the polio virus, demonstrating the physical, emotional and economic costs of the disease which has maimed millions all around the globe. Treatment can involve the use of an iron lung. Even in America, which hasn't had an outbreak of the virus for decades, there are those who still bear the scars of the disease, which one victim described as like "trying to do a triathlon every day".   

Polio eradication has been Rotary's top priority now for 23 years. In 1985 Rotary International launched one of the most ambitious humanitarian programmes ever undertaken by a private entity when it promised, initially, to raise $120 million to buy polio vaccine in support of a global effort to immunise the children of the world. It was this pledge which was the catalyst of the World Health Assembly's decision in 1988 to initiate the Global Polio Eradication Strategy. The strategy was based on the premise that the poliovirus will die out if deprived of its human host through immunisation. The strategy adopted is similar to that used to eradicate smallpox in 1977.

Since then, working with its three partners (the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the US Centre for Disease Prevention & Control) Rotary International has been a major player in the fight to eradicate polio from the face of the globe. As a result of annual mass immunisation programmes conducted world wide, and supported each time by Rotary volunteers, the number of new cases of paralytic polio each year has fallen dramatically.

In 1988 there were 350,000 new cases reported in 125 polio endemic countries that is a thousand lives devastated each day. In 2002 there were just under 2,000 new cases confined to 9 countries. In 2007 there were only 1,300 new cases in 4 countries ie Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and India. The number of new cases is expected to reduce even further this year.

Over the last few decades, India has been the country most affected by outbreaks of polio. In many of those years more than 80% of all new cases were to be found in India. Indeed it is estimated that 85% of all existing cases worldwide reside in India. India's present plight is caused not only through poor sanitation but also through a combination of ignorance, complacency and fear. Many parents do not understand the nature of the polio virus. They believe that the affliction can be cured so when they are asked to bring their children along to the immunisation booths, they reply "we will give medicine later if the child falls ill.". Some fathers argue "I am a daily labourer. I can't waste time taking my children to a booth and I can't wait at home for the vaccinators to come with the medicine. I will lose my wages". Some Muslims are still convinced that the polio vaccine is being used by the Hindu Government to sterilise Muslims.

But the picture in India is improving because of education and because of the efforts of the Indian Government to publicise the various NIDs (National Immunisation Days) all of which take place on a Sunday. On each of the three occasions when I have visited India as a Rotary volunteer to help with polio immunisation, I have found the cities, towns and villages festooned with huge multi-coloured banners, large scale balloons and posters advertising "Polio Sunday" and urging parents to bring their children along to the various immunisations booths set up in their localities.

My first time as a polio volunteer in India was in February 2004.  22 February to be precise. On that day a fellow club member, Barry Catchpole and I were taken by our host (a member of the Rotary Club of Delhi Uptown) to the Vaccine Distribution Centre in Delhi where we picked up our supply of vaccine. This consisted of 2 boxes, with each box containing 150 capsules of vaccines. Each capsule contained sufficient drops to immunise 10 children. So we had enough vaccine to immunise 3,000 children.

We arrived at our allotted booth, in Mukandpur, a village on the outskirts of Delhi, a quarter of an hour before the start at 10.00 am. Already there was a long line of children eager to be immunised mainly because of the promise of a ball for each child treated with the vaccine. We learnt later that we had immunised 2,674 children in our booth during the day and that throughout India, 165 million children had been immunised on that Polio Sunday.

My second time as a polio volunteer in India was in February 2008. This time it was in Haryana State which is not all that far from the Pakistan border and more precisely just  south of the Punjab. The day before Polio Sunday, our band of Rotary volunteers joined a group of school children and we all marched through the town of Sohna, holding banners and chanting slogans which publicised the immunisation event and urging all parents to bring their children along to the immunisation booths the next day. One of the slogans which I recall the children chanting was

Yadi ek bacha be choota                                       Even if one child is missed, consider that

Tho samjo pura charka tuta       which means      the whole cycle (immunisation) has been broken      

On Polio Sunday (10th February) my companion and I were delivered by our Rotarian hosts to a small, extremely poor, Muslim village called Ghesera. Once again most of the children had come or been brought along to our booth  because of the news that we were handing out small presents as an incentive for inoculation. When we had immunised all of the children who attended our booth, we moved on to a larger booth to help another Rotary team. Approximately 600 children were immunised at the two booths, which we attended. The total number of children immunised that day in India was 170 million.

My third experience as a polio volunteer worker was on 1st March 2009 in the Mewat District of Haryana. We visited several villages all around the main hospital called Mandikhera Hospital. Happily Haryana State has not had a new case of paralytical polio since 2007.

Since 1985 when Rotary first took the vision of a polio free world to the international community, Rotary has contributed more than US$800 million to the cause of Polio Eradication. These funds have provided much needed polio vaccine, operational support, medical personnel, laboratory equipment and educational material for health workers and parents. In addition to raising and contributing funds, Rotary has provided an army of volunteers to promote and assist during national immunisation campaigns. Indeed it is estimated that Rotarians have helped to immunise nearly 3 billion children in 122 countries.

The final push to eradicate the virus from the face of the globe is now well under way and Rotary's contribution towards this fight has been given a massive boost by the generosity of the Bill & Melinda Foundation. In November 2007, Rotary received a $100 million from the Bill Gates Foundation and again in January 2009, a further $255 million was received from the same Foundation, on the understanding that Rotary will raise over $200 million over the next few years.  In giving the money Bill Gates said that "the extraordinary dedication of Rotary members has played a critical role in bringing polio to the brink of eradication. Eradication polio will be one of the most significant public health accomplishments in history and we are committed to helping Rotary  reach that goal".

Someone once said "If you want to touch the past, touch a rock; if you want to touch the present touch a rose; if you want to touch the future, touch a life, especially a young life." If only someone had touched Amit's young life all those years ago by taking him along to a polio immunisation booth. But then there was unlikely to be such a thing in operation because that was before Rotary had given its pledge to rid the world of this debilitating disease.     

                                                                                                                    Mark Little

 As at 8 July 2015, there have been no polio cases detected in India for over 4 years now - a tremendous milestone that has left only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria on the World Health Organization's list of endemic countries. The total number of new cases for the last year to-date is 30, ie 26 in Pakistan and 4 in Afghanistan.

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