Poliomyelitis (polio) is a paralyzing and potentially fatal disease that still threatens children in some parts of the world. The poliovirus invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. It can strike at any age but mainly affects children under age 5. Polio is incurable, but is completely vaccine-preventable.

In 1985, Rotary International (RI) launched its Polio Plus program, the first initiative to tackle global polio eradication through the mass vaccination of children. Rotary has contributed more than $1.3 billion and countless volunteer hours to immunize more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries. In addition, Rotary’s advocacy efforts have played a role in decisions by donor governments to contribute more than $9 billion to the effort.

In the Beginning

The challenge of eradicating polio was the brainchild of two people: Clem Renhoff, the 1978–79 president of Rotary International, and then-District 7620 Governor Dr. John Sever, of Potomac, Md., who was the head of pediatric infectious diseases research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While traveling together, they discussed the need to undertake some special project as an everlasting gift to humanity. Later, Sever recommended vaccinating children in the endemic countries against polio or red measles.

Several million dollars was allocated, and plans were made to immunize children in a part of the Philippines against polio, and in south India against red measles. Both programs proved to be very successful, which resulted in a group of Rotary surgeons going to Malawi to perform surgeries on polio victims.

In 1985, RI decided polio would be the project of choice because it was easier to vaccinate the children without the need for professionally trained medical personnel.

Thus the Polio Plus program began. Because of Rotary’s worldwide presence, with clubs in 166 countries, the organization was able to take its international campaign to control and eradicate polio down to the streets and remote villages in the affected areas. Efforts were made to overcome formidable obstacles including those involving religion, culture, infrastructure and financial — even during times of war in many countries.

One of its first campaigns took place in Mexico in 1989. The results far exceeded the expectations. In just two days, more than 12 million children were vaccinated. With this level of unprecedented success, Rotarians around the world worked to set up annual National Immunization Days.

Partners Joining the Effort

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formulated in 1988. Although RI was the initiator of polio eradication, other organizations joined in the fight, and it is now a public-private partnership that includes Rotary, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and governments of the world. It has, however, been Rotary’s involvement that has helped keep the movement on track and the local people motivated with its focus on advocacy, fundraising, volunteer recruitment and awareness-building.

“Rotary’s voice is the most powerful weapon we have in the war against polio,” said Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general for Polio, Emergencies and Country Collaboration/World Health Organization. Rotary has “convinced the world’s health ministers that the completion of polio eradication must be declared an emergency for global public health.”

A Polio-Free World

In September, the World Health Organization announced that Nigeria is no longer polio endemic. As recently as 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide.

Today, there are only two countries that have never stopped transmission of the wild polio virus: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fewer than 370 polio cases were confirmed worldwide in 2014, which is a reduction of more than 99% since the 1980s when the world saw about 1,000 cases per day.

The polio cases represented by the remaining 1% are the most difficult to prevent, due to factors including geographical isolation, poor public infrastructure, armed conflict and cultural barriers. Until polio is eradicated, all countries remain at risk of outbreaks.

Every dollar Rotary commits to polio eradication will be matched two-to-one by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation up to $35 million a year through 2018. These funds help to provide operational support, medical personnel, laboratory equipment and educational materials for health workers and parents.

To date, Rotary has invested more than $1 billion into this humanitarian project. With hundreds of thousands of Rotarians working diligently over the past three decades, it is estimated that nearly 10 million children have been saved from becoming disabled. And, once polio is eradicated, mankind will save nearly $2 billion every year.

In addition, the lessons learned from this Rotary project are helping in the formulation of strategies in the fight against Ebola in Africa and reducing infant mortality in India.