Citizens versus Extreme Poverty

Twenty years ago, a grass-roots movement led by Rotary International, a voluntary organization with around 1.2 million members in more than 200 countries, decided to attack. As of the mid-1980’s, there were more than 300,000 cases of polio per year worldwide, despite the disease’s virtual elimination in the richest countries, where vaccination was routine. Rotary took on the challenge of getting vaccines to the poor, in regions with weak or non-existent public health systems. Rotarians dreamed not only of reducing the number of polio cases, but of eradicating the disease entirely. This goal is now within reach.

Rather than wait for politicians to take up the fight against polio, Rotarians led the way. A few years later, the World Health Organization, and then other international agencies and donor countries, joined the cause, creating a coalition of official and private organizations that now support Rotary’s vision. By 2006, the number of polio cases had been cut dramatically, to well under 3,000 cases per year.

Complete eradication is in reach, but is still proving elusive, as small outbreaks have plagued one country or another in recent years. In some cases, such as Northern Nigeria, social resistance to the vaccine has blocked adequate coverage of the population. Pockets of polio transmission also persist in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In a few other countries, the disease has been sporadically reintroduced by travelers from regions where polio has not yet been eliminated. And, in rare cases, the vaccine itself has failed and led to infection.

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