In the war against polio, Rotary is winning. And unbeknownst to most Evanstonians, the PolioPlus global eradication campaign is directed from the Rotary Building in downtown Evanston, headquarters to the million-plus Rotary members and 35,000 Rotary clubs worldwide.
When Rotary began its first polio immunization campaign, in the Philippines in 1979, there were more than 1,000 cases a day being reported worldwide. The following year, at Rotary’s 75th anniversary convention in Chicago, oral polio vaccine inventor Albert Sabin challenged Rotary to consider taking on the task of worldwide polio eradication. “Dr. Sabin said an organization like Rotary could make that happen, because we had members in nearly every country in the world,” said Carol Pandak, Director of PolioPlus.
The idea was highly appealing to Rotary, but also audacious. Only one major disease, smallpox, had ever been stamped out worldwide. Nevertheless five years later, in 1985, Rotary launched its PolioPlus initiative. Partnering with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided some $685 million in funding help, by 2017 PolioPlus had reduced the incidence of reported cases worldwide to just 22. And those cases were in just three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – where war and insurgencies made immunization campaigns chaotic if not impossible.
So far this year there have been just five reported cases, all in Afghanistan.
Dr. Pandak said the role of the 500 or so staff people at the Rotary headquarters in Evanston is “fundraising, advocacy and raising awareness with Rotary members. Our Rotary volunteers worldwide are the arms and legs of the PolioPlus campaign.”
Two of those volunteers are Ann and John Searles, longtime Evanstonians and Rotary members. After hearing about the PolioPlus volunteer efforts at a Rotary club meeting, they decided to go to India in February 2004. The polio vaccine is easy for volunteers to administer, requiring just two drops, dispensed from a medicine bottle. “We didn’t need much training,” Ms. Searles said. “You just press the children’s cheeks and their mouths pop open.”
The Searles stayed with local Rotarians in Ghaziabad, about 30 kilometers east of New Delhi. The immunization campaign lasted three days, during which they estimate they immunized several hundred children. They went to clinics, street corner booths and even bus stations. Some mothers would hand their babies to the volunteers right out of bus windows. India was declared polio-free in 2014.
“We were really glad to go,” said Ms. Searles. “It was such a worthy project.”
Worthy – and working, a miracle in the making. “2018 could be the year we see the last case of polio,” said Dr. Pandak, thanks to the efforts of Ann and John Searles and tens of thousands of Rotarians and others in a program started and managed right here in Evanston.