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  • Doug Townsend

ROTARY’S ROLE in ERADICATING POLIO: PART 1

By 1985, polio was destroying the lives of 350,000 children around the world every year. Rotary International decided to team up with the World Health Organization (WHO) to start a program called PolioPlus with the goal of reducing poliomyelitis cases worldwide from 350,000 to 0. That’s zero… nil… not a single new case. Rotary committed to raising the funds to allow WHO and Rotary volunteers to inoculate every child in the world. Soon thereafter, UNESCO and CDC (the Center for Disease Control) signed on as well.


Rotary’s initial target was to raise $120 million and it was believed at the time that this would be enough to do the job. Rotary asked every club in the world to contribute towards this target, which was to be over and above our normal fundraising goals, without cutting back on other services.

Locally at that time, there were three Rotary clubs in Kingston plus one each in Napanee and Gananoque. All were given goals to achieve. The Cataraqui-Kingston Rotary Club had only been in existence for two months so it was given a token goal of $500. But the newness of the club meant that our members were anxious to sink their teeth into something meaningful and there were no other competing projects. So, between reaching into our own pockets, approaching our employers, and hosting a 24-hour Ping-Pong-Athon, we raised $7,500 within a few months! If there had been an award for the highest percentage of the target, the Cataraqui-Kingston Rotary Club would have won it easily. And, of course, Kingston’s other two Rotary clubs did their part as well.


That was 35 years ago, and the goal of total eradication is proving much more difficult and more costly than projected. North America was declared to be totally polio-free in 1994. Most of Europe and South America followed soon afterwards. China and India, the two most populous nations, had several million- child inoculation days and likewise became polio free. As of 2020, there are still just two countries where poverty, contaminated water supplies, conflict, and local superstitions are making it hard to finish the job – namely Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nigeria was most recently declared polio-free: no new cases in the last three consecutive years.


The original $120 million fundraising goal has also ballooned. With the tremendous and unprecedented support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s matching grants, Rotary has now contributed $1.9 billion to ‘End Polio Now’.


The number of new cases in the world in 2018 was 33, down from 350,000 in 1988: 0.01%. But, according to the experts at the World Health Organization, “If all eradication efforts stopped today, within 10 years, polio could paralyze as many as 200,000 children each year.” So, fundraising continues around the world and Kingston’s Rotary clubs continue to do their part to raise funds and awareness.

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