October 24th 2020

Delma Sweeney

This Special Issue of the Dubliner celebrates the eradication of the polio virus in Africa and World Polio Day on 24th October.
Wild polio-free Africa: The Successes and Challenges

On 25th August the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that transmission of the wild poliovirus has officially been eliminated in all 47 countries of its African region. This is a historic and vital step toward global eradication of polio, which is one of Rotary’s top priorities. On 16th September Dr.Tunji Funsho, Chair of Rotary International’s Nigeria PolioPlus Committee gave a presentation on “Wild polio-free Africa: The Successes and Challenges.” He hails the eradication of the virus in Africa as a momentous time for Rotary International and also for our GPEI (Global Polio Eradication Initiative) partners the WHO, Centres for Disease Control, Unicef, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Gates Foundation. The polio regions have now been reduced by one, with two countries where the virus remains endemic, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Dr. Funsho said that we in Rotary can also give ourselves credit for convincing our GPEI partners that this was a worthwhile effort and something that could be done. We would not be at this point where Africa has been certified polio free if Rotary had not acted. He gave credit to a very important initiative that took place in 1995 which was initially catalysed by Rotary International President Herb Brown. Then in 1996, RI President Luis Giay, Rotary Foundation Chair Rajendra Saboo and Former South African President, Nelson Mandela established the project, launching the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” campaign. They set out a vision for a polio-free Africa. Almost immediately, using soccer matches and celebrity endorsements, the campaign raised public awareness of polio and helped spur more than 30 African countries to hold their first National Immunization Days.
Rotary International Past President Herb Brown, recalls seeking the South African leader's support. "President Mandela was so gracious and listened as we described the problem," Brown says. "I told him only he had the influence to persuade the countries to resume immunization." Mandela agreed to help. "I'm well aware of Rotary and all the work you've done, and all the work you did while I was in jail," he told Brown. At a press conference, with Brown at his side, Mandela asked all the heads of state in Africa to open their doors to polio National Immunization Days. In recognition of his vital work, Rotary presented the Rotary Award for World Understanding to Mandela in 1997, then Rotary's highest honour. "We chose President Mandela because of his significant contributions to world peace, human rights, and freedom," said Giay and "his strong support of the eradication of polio throughout Africa." Mandela said that Rotary's work toward eradicating polio "has shown the power of a global network of people who are ready to roll up their sleeves and put their heart and soul into saving children from disability."
The progress made in polio eradication is the result of a decades-long effort across the 47 countries of the African region. It has involved millions of health workers traveling by foot, boat, bike and bus, innovative strategies to vaccinate children amid conflict and insecurity, and a huge disease surveillance network to test cases of paralysis and check sewage for the virus. Ending wild polio virus in Africa is one of the greatest public health achievements of our time and provides powerful inspiration for all of us to finish the job of eradicating polio globally,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Rotary members have played an invaluable role in the effort to rid the African region of wild polio. Rotary members have contributed nearly €757 million toward polio eradication efforts in the African region. The funds have allowed Rotary to issue PolioPlus grants to fund polio surveillance, transportation, awareness campaigns, and National Immunization Days. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s challenge now is to eradicate wild poliovirus in the two countries where the disease has never been stopped: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, routine immunization in Africa must also be strengthened to keep the wild poliovirus from returning and to protect children against circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus, which is rare but continues to infect people in parts of the African region.
The resources and expertise used to eliminate wild polio have significantly contributed to public health and outbreak response systems in Africa and in countries around the world. The polio program provides far-reaching health benefits to local communities, from supporting the countries’ response to COVID-19 to bolstering routine immunization against other vaccine-preventable diseases. To eradicate polio, multiple high-quality immunization campaigns must continue to be given priority. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s necessary to keep children vaccinated against polio while also protecting health workers from COVID-19 and making sure they don’t contribute to its transmission.
Global health officials and experts say that sustained fundraising and advocacy are still crucial, not only to protect gains in Africa, but to reach the ultimate goal of a world without polio. Rotary members still have a critical role to play in keeping the African region free of wild poliovirus and eliminating the virus in the two countries where polio remains endemic.
World polio day was established by Rotary International to commemorate the birth of Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who led the first team to develop a vaccine against polio. He developed the inactivated poliovirus vaccine which came into use in 1955, after which Albert Sabin developed the oral polio vaccine which came into use in 1961. World Polio Day, on 24th October, has been observed for over a decade.
Transcribed & adapted by Delma Sweeney from a YouTube video of a presentation by Dr. Tunji Funsho’s (Chair of Rotary International’s PolioPlus Committee) presentation on “Wild polio-free Africa: The Successes and Challenges;” 16th September 2020. And from an article by Dan Nixon “Nelson Mandela remembered as an ally for peace, polio eradication” website; https//www.rotary.org/en/nelson-mandela-remembered-ally-peace-polio-eradication.