Eighty percent of the world polio free, two of three strains eradicated

Rotary Foundation Chair Dong Kurn Lee talks about the Foundation’s accomplishments during the third plenary session on 3 June.
Photo Credit: Rotary International/Monika Lozinska

If progress is measured in numbers, Rotary has entered rarified air in the fight against polio. Eighty percent of the world is now certified polio free, and two of the three strains of the disease have been eradicated, according to Dr. Bruce Aylward, who heads the polio eradication program at the World Health Organization.

Still, major challenges remain, including the international spread of the disease, the insecurity in endemic countries, and geopolitical tensions. In May WHO declared polio a public health emergency, asking the world to step up its vaccination efforts for international travelers.

"The world has decided it will do everything possible to protect the progress of PolioPlus," said Alyward, who traveled from Switzerland to Australia to deliver Monday's keynote address. In Somalia, for example, hundreds of sites have been set up to vaccinate anyone attempting to enter or travel outside the country. Six months after setting up those sites, not one child had been reported polio stricken, Alyward added.

Godfrey Egwau, a member of the Rotary Club of Soroti, Uganda, said he left the plenary session with a much stronger understanding of Rotary's accomplishments.

"It showed our great commitment to eradicating polio," he added. "I now believe we should be able to achieve this."

Before Rotary members received the latest news on polio from Alyward, they heard the story of polio survivor and Paralympic medalist Ade Adepitan, who has lived with the disease since he was an infant. At age 12, he discovered wheelchair basketball and dreamed of becoming a Paralympian. He competed in his first games in Sydney in 2000, and won a bronze medal at the 2004 games in Athens.

Adepitan is now dedicating much of his life to his home country of Nigeria, helping other polio survivors there fight for their rights and for change.

"I had a dream and did not allow anything to stop me from making it happen," Adepitan said. "I believe the same philosophy can be used in all aspects of life."

Rotary member Matthew Rich, attending from Northfield, Minnesota, United States, applauded Adepitan for sharing his story.

"His speech was very off the cuff and genuine," Rich said. "I thought that was the most inspirational program."

Later in the program, Sir Emeka Offor, of the Rotary Club of Awka GRA, announced his $1 million donation to PolioPlus with strong words of encouragement to Rotary members.

"As a young man, I vowed that I would someday do something significant to end polio in Nigeria," Sir Emeka said. "My goal was then and now to do all within my power to support polio immunization efforts in Nigeria and throughout the world."

Sir Emeka also recently opened a PolioPlus ambassador's office in Nigeria, at no cost to Rotary. The office serves as a hub for the National PolioPlus Committee, in order to reach the remaining pockets of polio in the country.

Polio was far from the only topic of discussion Tuesday. Mwila Chigaga, a former peace fellow from the Rotary Peace Center at Duke University and now a gender specialist for African Regions at the International Labour Organization, is striving for decent work and equal opportunities between women and men in Africa.

"Social justice, equality, fairness, and equal rights for women have been and will continue to be my lifelong passion," she said. "It defines me and what I aspire for."

Though significant obstacles remain, Chigaga said she believes Africa is rising and "the mentality of the African has changed."

"I am no longer an invisible woman," she added. "I have a voice."

Maya Ajmera, a 1989 Rotary Scholar, accepted the Global Alumni Service to Humanity Award and spoke about the Global Fund for Children, a children's advocacy nonprofit she founded in 1993.

In his address to the convention, Rotary Foundation Trustee Chair Dong Kurn Lee called on Rotarians to do what they do best, raise money. He thanked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its two-to-one dollar match of every dollar committed to polio eradication in the next five years, up to $35 million a year.

"If we spend $35 million, they give $70 million more," he said. "As a businessman, I see this as a good financial investment."

Elections and reports

In the afternoon business session, President Ron Burton and General Secretary John Hewko oversaw the election of the 2015-17 directors and 2015-16 district governors.

President-nominee K.R. "Ravi" Ravindran received unanimous approval by the voting delegation to take the reins of Rotary International in 2015.

In his report to the convention, General Secretary John Hewko spoke about increasing public awareness for polio eradication, and the latest on Rotary's World's Biggest Commercial Project, which recently set a Guinness World Record for largest photo awareness campaign.

"We have received an unprecedented amount of media coverage for our role in the fight to end polio," Hewko added. "This coverage includes more than 400 stories with significant, positive Rotary messaging."

Rotary International Treasurer Andy Smallwood walked Rotary members through his report. Rotary has had difficulty achieving its anticipated membership numbers, so dues revenues are projected to be under budget by about $700,000. However, any shortfall in dues is more than covered by strong investment returns so far this year, Smallwood said. Services and other activities remain on target to break even.

"None of us can control inflation rates or global investment markets," Smallwood added. "But I want to emphasize that membership growth is an area in which each of us do have control."

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