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Rotary's Big Boots

By TINA ROSENBERG

Published: May 11, 2005

Next month Rotary International turns 100. Rotary clubs, a staple of small-town life, are celebrating the construction of innumerable parks, the holding of myriad blood drives, the awarding of countless college scholarships - and the imminent global eradication of polio.

Twenty years ago, there were a thousand new cases of polio every day. Now polio strikes only about a thousand children a year. By next year, that number should be zero. People who think of Rotary as a congregation of service-minded dentists and funeral directors may not have noticed, but the dentists and funeral directors have created the largest, most successful private health initiative ever.

When Rotary celebrated its 75th birthday, its leaders decided to find a project that all its clubs - now in 168 countries - could work on together. A Rotarian ophthalmologist in the Philippines, where polio was rampant, asked Rotary to vaccinate Filipino children. It vaccinated six million, then made similar efforts in five other nations. In 1985, Rotary decided to wipe out polio completely.

By the time polio is eradicated, Rotary clubs will have directly contributed at least $600 million, more than any other organization except the United States government. And they offer more than cash.

"We realized the task of getting vaccines to children, persuading mothers and fathers of the value of immunization, was a problem of distribution, logistics and social mobilization," said Herb Pigman, an American who was one of the campaign's early leaders. "And here's an organization with boots on the ground in hundreds of thousands of communities."

Big boots, too. "Every polio meeting you go to, you see them," said Rima Salah, deputy executive director of Unicef. "They have commitment, credibility and influence with leaders." This is crucial, as the challenge today is political. In August 2003, Muslim clerics from the northern Nigerian state of Kano charged that America had laced the polio vaccine with drugs to render African girls infertile. Kano stopped vaccinating. Kano's cases doubled, and Nigerian strains of polio have spread to 16 other nations that had beaten the virus.

Coincidentally, the president of Rotary International that year, Jonathan Majiyagbe, was from Kano. He helped broker a compromise: Kano would use vaccine made in Indonesia, a Muslim country. In August 2004, Kano's governor publicly vaccinated his infant daughter.

Although the countries Kano infected will have to spend millions on emergency vaccination campaigns, they will probably be successful. The real challenge is to eliminate polio at its epicenter, Nigeria. If Kano does not bolt again, this will probably happen in a year. "We would not be here without Rotary International," Dr. Salah said. "Rotary is the heart and soul of polio eradication."

 

 

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