Rotary’s impact on World Health Day: Celebrating the fight against polio

Each April, for seventy-five years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) commemorates World Health Day. The objective of this day is to heighten awareness about health issues and celebrate global achievements.

The theme for World Health Day in 2023 is "Health For All." On its 75th anniversary, the WHO seeks to reflect on the significant changes in medicine and health care that have greatly enhanced many people's lives.

One historic achievement has been the near elimination of polio.

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a highly infectious viral disease primarily affecting young children. The virus spreads through person-to-person contact, often entering the body through the mouth. While most infected people show no symptoms, some may experience flu-like symptoms. A small proportion may develop severe muscle weakness or paralysis, with potential long-term disability or death.

Polio has existed for thousands of years, with evidence of the disease found in ancient Egyptian writings and artwork. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that polio became a significant public health concern, leading to widespread epidemics in Europe and the United States.

In the early 1950s, Dr Jonas Salk developed the first successful inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), followed by Dr Albert Sabin's oral polio vaccine (OPV) in 1961. Since discovering these effective vaccines, the global community has persistently endeavoured to end polio.

Rotary International, a global service organisation founded in 1905, has always been dedicated to addressing humanitarian challenges. In the early 1980s, Rotary decided to focus on a significant global health issue, and polio eradication emerged as the primary objective. At that time, polio was still endemic in over 120 countries, paralysing over 1,000 children daily.

In 1985, Rotary launched the PolioPlus program, committing to immunise all the world's children against polio. This program was one of the first large-scale, internationally coordinated efforts to eradicate a disease. Rotary's commitment to polio eradication involved raising funds and mobilising its extensive network of volunteers to support immunisation campaigns, build infrastructure, and advocate for political commitment.

Rotary's PolioPlus program attracted the attention of other major health organisations. In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was established as a partnership between Rotary, WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation later joined the partnership, providing substantial financial support and advocacy.

This monumental public health campaign's success highlights numerous stakeholders' dedication and commitment, which has led to a drastic reduction in polio cases. In 1988, there were 350,000 reported cases of polio in 125 countries. By 2021, polio cases had dropped by more than 99%, with only a handful of cases reported in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although polio has been significantly reduced and is on the brink of elimination, it has not been completely eradicated. However, it is a powerful reminder of what can be accomplished through international cooperation, sustained investment and a shared commitment to improving public health. Additionally, this notable milestone embodies the 2023 World Health Day theme, “Health For All”.

Rotary’s impact on World Health Day: Celebrating the fight against polio

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