A first-hand account of the battle to eradicate polio was given to the club on Monday by Rotarian Mike Holness, who has twice travelled to India with his wife Frankie to help with mass immunisation programmes.
Club member Mike was speaking at Monday night’s meeting in advance of World Polio Day, on Saturday, October 24, which marks Rotary’s more than 30-year global battle to eradicate the disease.
Mike explained that up until the 1950s, when the first vaccine was introduced, the UK alone had seen 8,000 cases a year. And while an oral vaccine has been available since 1962, when Rotary declared its ambition to rid the world of polio in 1987 there were still 1,000 cases per day in 125 countries.
Since then, thanks to Rotary working alongside the World Health organisation and charities such as the Gates Foundation, cases have fallen by 99.9 per cent.
More than 2.5 billion children have been protected against the disease, which is now endemic in just Afghanistan and Pakistan with just 102 cases this year. And out of the original three strains of the polio virus, only one now still exists.
2020 saw a significant milestone in the battle when Africa was certified polio-free.
While Rotary has directly contributed more than $2billion to ending polio, Rotarians have done much more than just raise money.
Clubs across the globe have been at the forefront of the battle, with volunteers on the ground working alongside health workers to run immunisation programmes in some of the world’s poorest places.
Mike and Frankie volunteered in India in 2004 and again in 2011, helping vaccinate children in National Immunisation Days (NIDs) co-ordinated by local Rotary clubs. The first time they helped in the slums of Delhi and the second in an isolated village outside the capital.
Mike said: “The idea is to flood the country with the vaccine, which was described as ‘two drops of life’ for the two drops of vaccine given to each child. In 2004 166 million children were vaccinated at 1.1 million vaccination points by 2.3 million volunteers.
He explained a huge publicity drive takes place before each NID to encourage parents to bring their children to be vaccinated. After vaccination each child’s finger is marked with purple ink which lasts for a month, making it easier for health workers to spot children who have not been treated.
“No child is safe until all children are safe,” said Mike.
He described the dignity of local people despite the poverty they lived, their patience while waiting in long queues for vaccination, and the commitment of local volunteers who took unpaid leave to help.
Mike explained once a country was free of polio continued immunity should be managed through the normal processes of infant immunisations after birth, followed by a booster at five years age.
But this depended on the quality of local health services and the threat of large-scale infections from other infected areas, which would likely require Regional Immunisation Days in response.
In the case of India, which was declared free of polio in 2015, a full National Immunisation Day was carried out in January this year due to the threat of cases from neighbouring Pakistan.
The battle against polio can also be dangerous. Mike said 25 health workers had been shot in places like Pakistan where they were sometimes viewed with suspicion. But he also said there had been ‘Days of Tranquillity’ in trouble spots around the world, where bodies such as UNICEF had arranged ceasefires to allow for immunisation days to be held.