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Steve Lewis: Polio and COVID-19

By Steve Lewis

Rotary International in 1985 initiated a mass polio immunization project in the Philippines. That effort demonstrated that the polio virus could be stopped via mass immunizations — targeted immunizations when outbreaks inevitably developed and ongoing monitoring and testing of people and environments.

Rotary launched the PolioPlus program in 1987, with the goal of eradicating polio worldwide. In the first year, Rotary raised $215 million from Rotarians worldwide to support the project. Rotary was soon joined by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and in more recent years the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become a major funding partner.

Governments from around the world have also contributed significantly to the ongoing program, realizing that polio is a worldwide problem that knows no boundaries.

When PolioPlus was launched, more than 350,000 cases of paralytic polio in 125 countries were being reported annually worldwide. Since inception, 2.5 billion children have been immunized thanks to the cooperation of 200 countries and 20 million volunteers.

But the job is not yet done. Only two countries continue to see the scourge of the wild polio virus. In Afghanistan, 29 cases of wild polio virus were identified in 2019 and 146 cases in Pakistan. While Nigeria has now been polio free for nearly three years, Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered increases in wild polio virus cases over prior years due to ongoing conflict, lack of basic personal hygiene education and partisan political issues.

The WHO has been a partner with Rotary International in the eradication effort and Rotary has relied on WHO to identify strains of the wild polio virus, cases of vaccine derived polio, infection locations and their staff helps to organize local ministries of health in doing targeted immunizations to stop further spread during an outbreak. Over the next four to six months the polio program is offering its tools, workforce, and extensive surveillance network to support countries as they respond to COVID-19.

Polio or any other virus is easily transmitted, and some say “… it is just a short walk or an airplane ride away.” That is precisely why polio has been so hard to eradicate and why COVID-19 will be equally difficult. We have learned much from the PolioPlus journey that needs to be applied to COVID-19. The fight will be long, arduous, and we need to be prepared to fight it to the finish.

We need both the World Health Organization and our international allies in this fight. We need to share information with candor, and we must rely on our friends around the world to help beat COVID-19. We cannot continue to burn our international relationships as if they are just another trivial part of a transaction. The continued good health and wellbeing of our country depends on our doing the right things in the right way. We simply cannot abandon the expertise of the World Health Organization as any such action by our United States leadership would be a huge mistake. The highly trained men and women of WHO are people we can count on to help defeat COVID-19 — we know this because of what they have done to help eradicate polio. We need to help them as much as we need them to help us.

Steve Lewis is a 25-year member and past president of the Rotary Club of Carson City, a past Rotary District Governor who currently serves Rotary International as a “Regional Rotary Foundation Coordinator.”