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Renewed Effort Underway to Eradicate Polio

  • Derek Henkle

A child being vaccinated against polio

A child being vaccinated against polio

A new effort is underway to vaccinate people in the four countries where polio outbreaks still occur. If this effort is successful, polio could be eradicated worldwide. Derek Henkle met the 88-year-old Australian man behind the program, which is credited with preventing millions of disabilities and saving countless lives.

As a boy growing up in Pakistan, Zak Ahmad dreamed of coaching a football team. At the age of 21, he moved to Australia to pursue that dream. But one week after arriving, his life suddenly changed.

"My both legs, they were not able to move," said Zak Ahmad. "So doctors, they just said that it would be a miracle if you come out of it, because in medical science they don't have any cure for this disease."

Ahmad had contracted polio, a disease that paralyzes - and sometimes kills - its victims.

"I thought that my dreams were over now," he said. "I can't do anything in my whole life. And I was really much shocked."

Ahmad's experience is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of people used to get polio, a virus that spreads as easily as the common cold.

Polio is no longer a concern in Western countries because of mass inoculations starting in the 1950s.

But children in developing nations lived under the constant risk of infection until more recently, when an international service club took aim at eliminating the disease.

It's here in the small Australian town of Nambour that the battle to eradicate polio began. It was one man's vision that if just two drops, from a bottle like this one, could prevent children from getting the disease, that global eradication could be within reach. Now, 20 years on, they say they're three years away from realizing that vision."

"I picked up a Reader's Digest, and there I read that for $100 million the World Health Organization had eradicated small pox," said Sir Clem Renouf. "And this fired my imagination. I thought, 'My gosh, we could do something like that.'"

Sir Clem Renouf, then president of Rotary International, convinced Rotarians across the globe to unite against the disease by raising money to fight the virus and by volunteering their time toward that effort.

"Suddenly, we realized that we had the capacity, and the encouragement, as Rotary clubs to do major projects, then the eradication of polio was no longer an impossible dream," he said.

Rotary International pledged to raise 120 million U.S. dollars to pay for immunizing children against the disease. Rotarians have since raised more than $900 million to end polio.

Rotary is now a partner with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a renewed effort to eradicate polio.
The W.H.O. says since 1988, more than two billion children around the world have been immunized against polio.

The campaign is focusing on Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria - the four countries where the disease remains.

Jenny Horton helps coordinate Rotary's efforts in those countries.

"We have teams of people just going door-to-door ensuring that every child under five is vaccinated with drops," said Jenny Horton. "So it's a huge program, but the effects of that program are just enormous in preventing disability."

For Zak Ahmad, just one week after getting polio, his immune system began to fight the virus. He credits the oral polio vaccine he received as a child for giving him a new lease on life.

"In the morning I wake up, I was sleeping, and I just turn around and my body was just moving normally," he said.

The end of polio may be within reach. When the campaign first started, the World Health Organization says the disease paralyzed more than 1,000 children every day. So far this year, only 561 cases have been reported.

"We will keep going 'til the end," she said. "We are there; we don't want any more children disabled. It's really, really important that every time we reach every child with polio drops."

Tiny drops, which are now bringing big hopes of eliminating the second disease ever from the globe.