By Donella Meadows
–November 20, 1986–
When I was a kid the hot summer months were called “polio season”.
I still remember the gusts of fear that swept over our neighborhood whenever one of my playmates came down with stiffness or a fever. Two children I knew actually got polio. One was permanently paralyzed. The other, after months of struggle in an iron lung, died at age 11.
The terror and grief of polio are only memories now in this part of the world. But not in the world as a whole. Every year polio strikes roughly 500,000 children and kills 50,000. It cripples one child of every 200 born in the developing countries.
All that suffering is unnecessary. Two drops of polio vaccine in a child’s mouth, repeated three times, protects that child for life. Each dose costs 4 cents. It has been technically possible for 20 years now to prevent polio. What has been missing is that mysterious thing called political will: the insistence, the social intention, the public stand that polio should be eradicated.
The world’s Rotary Clubs, with over 1 million members in 160 countries, are now providing that public stand. This summer Rotary made a commitment to the immunization of all the world’s children against polio by the year 2005 — Rotary’s 100th anniversary. For good measure they also included immunization against five other diseases: measles, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, and whooping cough. The program is called PolioPlus.
When you make a public declaration like that, with a measurable result and a deadline and your organization’s reputation on the line, you’re serious. Rotary has been planning jointly with a powerful public-health partnership — the Pan American Health Organization, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF. Rotary will bring to the partnership not only its public commitment, but the energy of its members, to work as organizers and volunteers, and to raise $120 million.
Rotary brings considerable experience to this endeavor. In 1979 Rotary took on a polio immunization project in the Philippines. It reached 6 million children and reduced the incidence of polio by 70%. That was followed by projects in Bolivia, the Gambia, Paraguay, and, as of June 1986, 30 other nations, in which 150 million children have been vaccinated.
For example, in Mexico this year, 11,000 Rotarians helped the government carry out two national vaccination days, which reached 11.5 million of the nation’s 12.5 million children under five years of age. The Rotary Foundation donated $1.25 million for polio vaccine, 900 refrigerators to keep the vaccine cold, and 120,000 posters announcing the vaccination dates. Mexican Rotarians kept records, donated trucks, ran advertisements, went house to house checking that all children were participating. Two months later they did it all again, to be sure the children received booster doses.
Rotary’s polio-prevention activities so far have cost about $23 million. To raise the $120 million they figure will complete the job, Rotarians in 22,000 clubs around the world are gearing up.
Jaap de Jong is a Dutch-born doctor who works at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manchester, N.H. He is the PolioPlus coordinator for 46 Rotary Clubs in southern Vermont and New Hampshire. The fundraising campaign is just getting started, but Jaap is already in motion. He has made his own donation to PolioPlus and has convinced seven Rotarians each to pledge $100 per year for the next ten years. He also asks his patients and staff to bring him aluminum cans, for which he gets 20 cents a pound at the recycling center. The cans have already raised $200 for PolioPlus.
Rene« Louvat is responsible for PolioPlus in the Hudson N.H. Rotary, one of the clubs in Jaap’s district. He plans to buy copies of the book Ending Hunger wholesale and sell them retail to earn money for PolioPlus. Why a book about hunger? Because, he says, hunger increases the danger and severity of childhood diseases, and because the mental and organizational shift it takes for a nation to eliminate polio is what it takes to end hunger as well.
Rene« says, “In some places they have a saying ‘don’t count your children till they’ve had the measles’. That kind of resignation, on all levels from the family to the government, permits preventable evils, like polio and hunger, to persist. PolioPlus will show how a lot of people working together can achieve a wonderful goal. People everywhere, including in Rotary, will discover what a difference they can make. I’m thrilled about this project. It taps the real potential of Rotary.”
Jaap de Jong likes to quote Walter Maddocks, the executive director of the PolioPlus campaign, “To be playing a part in PolioPlus is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
If you would like to be part of the opportunity, go up to anyone you see wearing a Rotary pin and ask how you can help. Or send a check, made out to the PolioPlus Fund, to your local Rotary Club (which you can locate by calling your Chamber of Commerce). Just twelve dollars buys enough polio vaccine for 100 children.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986