Much work needed to eliminate the polio scourge worldwide

Courtesy of The Grand Island Independent
By Robert Pore
[email protected]

As chief executive officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jeff Raikes has traveled worldwide in the organization’s effort to eliminate polio.

But, wherever his travels have taken him, Rotary International has been on the scene to help eradicate polio for more than 25 years.

“That is one of the things I really, really admire about Rotary — your steadfast presence in your fight against polio,” he said.

Raikes was in Grand Island on Tuesday, November 20 to speak to more than 300 Rotarians from across Nebraska at Riverside Golf Club.

An Ashland native, Raikes discussed the latest efforts in the PolioPlus Campaign, which is a major project by Rotary Inter-national, to end the scourge of polio around the world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major partner with Rotary in eliminating polio worldwide.

“Without Rotary, the global effort would never have come this far,” Raikes said. “And at the Gates Foundation, we would have never gotten involved without the leadership of Rotary.”

Jeff Raikes speaks to Rotary members from across Nebraska

Jeff Raikes speaks to Rotary members from across Nebraska. Grand Island Independent photo

The good news, Raikes said, is that the battle has nearly accomplished its goal.

“We are this close — 99 per-cent of the way toward the eradication — and it is the top priority of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” he said.

Raikes called it the “next big milestone in global health and development.”

“The world is coming together to do something that is totally amazing — to protect every single child, everyone from a horrible disease,” he said.

According to the World Health Organization, polio is a highly infectious viral disease that mainly affects young children. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water and multiplies in the intestines, from where it can invade the nervous system. Many infected people have no symptoms but do excrete the virus in their feces, transmitting infection to others.

Initial symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. In a small proportion of cases, the disease causes paralysis, which is often permanent. Polio can only be prevented by immunization.

Because it takes a group effort to eradicate a disease that has killed millions, Raikes said, the effort against polio will motivate people worldwide to eliminate other deadly diseases, such as malaria, along with improving drinking water and sanitation to eliminate the spread of disease.

“In the next decade, I think we can create a world in which all children get the vaccines,” he said.

Raikes said the World Health Organization this year announced polio as a world emergency. He said India, with the world’s second-largest population behind China, has been polio-free for 21 months.

“I don’t know if you realize how amazing that success is,” he said. “In 2009, India had the most polio cases of any country. Everybody thought that India would be the last country that we would fully interrupt transmission.”

According to the World Health Organization, so far this year, 187 cases of polio have been reported in four countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Chad. Nigeria has reported 101 cases of polio. Last year, there were 650 cases of polio reported worldwide in 13 countries.

Raikes said polio programs are “harnessing the power of innovation to improve practices in the field.”

After celebrating Thanksgiving with his family in Nebraska, Raikes said, he will be off to Nigeria to coordinate the battle to eradicate polio in Africa’s most populated country.

In Nigeria, with the support of Rotary International and the Gates Foundation, he said, they have used geographic information systems to create highly accurate maps that identify entire villages of children who were missed by the old system used to make sure the polio vaccine got where it was needed.

“Technology is going to help us reach tens of thousands of additional children,” Raikes said.

But still, he said, the fight to eradicate polio is “harder than we expect.”

“That last 1 percent is going to be very difficult and is the hardest point typically in life,” he said. “There are places where the disease was eliminated but has returned. There are places where children are repeatedly missed with vaccines. There is also a very large and growing funding gap despite your (Rotary) great work.”

Raikes said his biggest worry isn’t that the world isn’t moving urgently enough to eliminate polio.

“Scientists agree that, if we don’t stamp out every in-stance of polio, the number of cases will climb into the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands,” he said.

“Then the virus will spread again into other countries where it has been eliminated,” Raikes said. “We simply have to finish the job, and Rotary is a critical part of making that happen.”

Both Rotary International and the Gates Foundation have pledged additional money to achieve the goal.

Tuesday’s program was called “Peace Through Service” and was presented by Rotary Districts 5630 and 5650. Since Rotary instituted its goal of eradicating polio in 1985, the two districts have contributed nearly $1.7 million. The event was hosted by the Grand Island Rotary Club and coordinated by Ken Gnadt.

Rotary International has raised more than $1.2 billion since 1985 to combat polio.

Raikes called on Rotary members to be even more dedicated to raising more money and spreading public awareness in the battle to eradicate polio. To give up now would be “devastating,” he said.

“We need to get this story out and make sure people know what the problem is,” Raikes said. “That will take teamwork and continued belief in the cause.”

To learn more about Rotary International’s fight against polio, visit www.rotary.org. To learn more about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, visit : www.gatesfoundation.org.

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