A polio-free world

A polio-free world

Rotary International’s laser focus on eradicating polio globally has helped to create a unique window of opportunity to stop poliovirus transmission for good

More than three decades ago, Rotary envisioned a world without polio, setting an ambitious goal to immunise all the world’s children against polio – coining an inclusive ‘health for all’ appeal before it became a global health concept.

Rotary brought that vision to life by catalysing the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership formed in 1988 following a World Health Assembly resolution to pursue the goal of a polio-free world. Ever since, Rotary has remained steadfastly committed to eradicating polio globally as its top priority in myriad ways, from fundraising to on-the-ground support.

In global public health, commitments like this help sustain a long-term focus. In that vein, I was honoured recently to join dedicated female health workers – whose safety is paramount – in Pakistan. More than 70% of mothers in this country prefer to have women vaccinate their children. By working together with our GPEI partners and front-line health workers with a common purpose, we are expanding healthcare access and opportunities so that everyone can grow and thrive, which helps drive change on an epic and global scale.

By way of example, the GPEI has achieved remarkable success to date:

  •  Three billion children are protected against polio in 122 countries
  •  Polio cases have been reduced by 99.9%
  •  20 million people have been spared from disability
  •  1.5 million childhood deaths have been averted
  •  Five regions of the world are certified free from wild polio
  •  Only two polio-endemic countries remain.

These achievements have resulted from the conscious, deliberate commitment of political, financial and human capital over a sustained period. Rotary is proud to play a vital leading role.

Ending polio forever

Specifically, we are uniquely positioned as an organisation with civically active citizens in hundreds of countries and regions worldwide. In polio-affected countries, Rotary club members not only participate in immunisation activities but also work with governments and stakeholders to ensure that polio remains a priority for those in authority, regardless of political affiliation. And every year, through our funding partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary commits $150 million to the global effort to eradicate polio. To date, we have contributed more than $2.6 billion and countless volunteer hours to end polio forever.

Despite challenges over the years – from targeted attacks on health workers in Pakistan and Afghanistan to vaccine resistance spurred on by myths and misinformation about the safety of polio vaccines – Rotary and its partners have worked to overcome roadblocks by building trust, engaging with a wide range of community leaders from all segments of society.

Now, the lessons and strategies learned from our efforts to eradicate polio are being applied to address other health issues. Notably, the infrastructure Rotary and our GPEI partners helped create to end polio is now being used to protect millions of people from other diseases – including Ebola, malaria and Covid-19.

Even as the polio infrastructure is being used to address other diseases, Rotary believes we have a shared responsibility to keep the spotlight on polio eradication and raise awareness just as we did in 2002 when we – along with our GPEI partners and the Canadian government – placed polio on the G7 agenda. The G7 has upheld its commitment to polio eradication nearly annually since then. Rotary has also worked with the G20, the Commonwealth, the African Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and others to raise awareness and secure political and financial commitment towards the goal of a polio-free world.

Falling immunisation rates

This advocacy work has never been more critical, given that routine immunisation rates have fallen during the Covid-19 pandemic, national budgets and health systems are facing unprecedented demands, and polio detections have surfaced around the world, from Malawi to Mozambique to New York and London. These detections are stark reminders that as long as polio exists anywhere, it is a threat everywhere. They also highlight the importance of immunisation as the only form of protection against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases, and the work that needs to be done in our communities to encourage the uptake of vaccines.

The world currently has a unique opportunity to stop poliovirus transmission for good. This is why all parties, including donors and country governments, must re-commit to polio eradication by ensuring the Global Polio Eradication Initiative 2022–2026 strategy is fully resourced and implemented.

We look forward to applying all we have learned about using our collective voice to continue positively influencing political choices to deliver better health for all. Ultimately, Rotary and its partners look forward to fulfilling our promise of a polio-free world.