PolioPlus - Rotary International's Worldwide Campaign
Thanks largely to a decades-long campaign by Rotary, World Polio Day on 24th October marked the eradication of the second of three strains of the virus. With polio now endemic in just two countries, Rotarian Martin Trepte reports how Rotarians from Maidenhead have been on the frontline in the worldwide battle to consign the disease to history.
When Rotary as an international organisation pledged in 1985 to eradicate polio - a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease that mainly affects children under five - it was endemic in 125 countries.
By 2017, working with the World Health Organisation and Unicef, Rotarians had helped immunise more than 2.5 billion children causing a 99.9 per cent drop in cases from 350,000 to 22. And as of September there were only two countries left where the wild poliovirus was endemic – Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Maidenhead’s Rotarians have been at the forefront of the battle against polio at every level. The town’s three clubs have for years worked to raise funds for mass vaccinations and even provided volunteers to help in immunisation programmes in places like India.
Rotarian Judith Diment plays a key role as a member of the Rotary International PolioPlus Committee – which steers the organisation’s campaign against the disease - and is also Rotary’s polio representative to the Commonwealth.
So important is her personal contribution that in her last Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May paid tribute to Judith’s efforts.
“That was unexpected but great profile for Rotary,” said Judith. “In the UK my role is as an advocacy advisor to liaise with the government to keep the finance coming. And to its credit, the UK is the second largest donor after the US.”
Judith is heavily involved in organising a huge event in Abu Dhabi to encourage Governments to pledge the £3.2 billion needed for the final push against the disease.
She said: “We have made enormous progress. Two out of the three strains of polio have been eradicated. The strategy is now in place to get to zero cases and we should be on track to end polio by 2023. But with the end in sight we have to concentrate our efforts more than ever and not be complacent. The enormous benefits of our campaign have gone far beyond just polio – in India for example the infrastructure we set up has also been used to reduce measles by 45 per cent.”
Maidenhead Rotarians Mike and Frankie Holness have first-hand experience in fighting polio. In 2004, and again in 2011, they volunteered for immunisation programmes in India, helping local Rotarians and health workers give the vaccine to hundreds of children.
Mike said: “A friend of mine at school had polio so I knew first-hand the effect of it on families. When the opportunity came for Frankie and I to go to India and take part in an immunisation programme we were only too aware of the need to get rid of it.”
Funds raised by Rotary paid for the massive logistical operation of organising the vaccinations, which took place across the country at the same time.
Representing Rotary on the world stage, Judith works to keep the battle against polio high on the international agenda of governments, NGOs and the EU, and at global forums such as the G7 and G20. At the end of October she was speaking at the World Health Summit in Berlin.
Rotary and its partners have drawn up a new strategy for 2019-2023 by when it is hoped the world will finally be declared polio-free. But to achieve that goal more than 400 million children in up to 60 countries have to receive multiple doses of the polio vaccine annually, with about two billion doses being administered. If Rotary eases up on its work it predicts there will be at least 200,000 cases worldwide within 10 years.
The local Rotary club Frankie and Mike helped was responsible for 102 immunising booths in just one of Delhi’s slums.
Frankie added: “It was a remarkable experience and a privilege to work alongside the people who have been doing this for 30 years, four times a year. The vaccine is oral – just two drops on the tongue – so it doesn’t need any expertise to administer.”
Drawing a parallel with measles, which has increased in the UK because of a fall in vaccinations, the couple said it is vital not to be complacent in the fight against polio.
“We have to see this through to the end,” said Mike.
Since 2013, the Gates Foundation has matched every $1 Rotary commits to polio eradication on a two for one basis which equates to $35 (£25) million per year. Rotary, together with matching funds from the Gates Foundation, has contributed more than $1.6 billion to end polio.
If you would like to help or contribute to this worthwhile effort to stamp out polio from our planet please contact the Rotary Club of Maidenhead.