Posted by PDG Michael Drake, D5500

Note: The Following Article Appeared in The Arizona Daily Star on October 26, 2020


In 1985, Rotary International made the audacious pledge to eradicate polio worldwide. It would be only the second disease to be eradicated. (The World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.) In 1985, there were 360,000 cases a year in 125 countries of paralytic polio, primarily in children. Polio is spread by fecal-oral transmission. It attacks the nervous system, and can result in paralysis of muscles, particularly in the lower limbs and diaphragm.

Rotary International has 1.2 million members in 34,000 clubs in over 200 countries and geographical areas. Rotary is assiduously non-religious and non-political. Therefore our membership is international and diverse. This allows our international humanitarian work to have wider and bigger impact, including the eradication of polio.

In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed when Rotary acquired partners World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control. In recent years, the Gates Foundation has been a generous supporter and partner. Using the Sabin oral vaccine, volunteer Rotarians and health workers around the world began vaccinating children. To date, approximately 3.5 billion children have received the precious drops. Because of that, it's estimated 19 million children have been spared the scourge of polio.


Every year since the vaccination program began in 1985, the number of new cases worldwide has gone down. By 2017, there were only 22 cases, all in only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan. The number has gone up slightly in 2018 and 2019, and this last step is the most challenging. Most cases occur along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a very mountainous, inaccessible region.

Parents sometimes resist having their children vaccinated because of rumors it is a plot by the United States to make Muslim children infertile. And the Taliban opposes the program fearing the health workers are spies or will undermine their control. Indeed, in 2019, 11 health workers administering the vaccine were assassinated along the border by such militants. But we persist.

Individual Rotarians, including the 1500 members in 50 clubs in Rotary District 5500 in Southern Arizona, have personally contributed over $2 billion toward eradication. In 2009, Rotarians in Southern Arizona, led by Rotarian and community leader Mike Harris, now deceased, began riding in the annual El Tour de Tucson cycling event to raise funds. Our 'Ride To End Polio,' including our indoor ride now organized by Mike's wife Charlotte, has grown and now has international Rotarian riders and donors. With the participation and support of Rotary International General Secretary John Hewko and Marga, and a two for one match by the Gates Foundation, since 2009 our local Rotary 'Ride To End Polio' has raised $55 million for polio eradication!

Rotary's army of volunteer members around the world organize immunization campaigns, transport the cold chain vaccine by car, boat, motor scooter, burro, and on foot. Along with its partners and local health officials, Rotary has created the largest public-private health initiative the world has ever seen. In addition to raising funds, many of us in Southern Arizona have traveled to India, Nigeria, and other countries to participate in National Immunization Days.

In late October, Rotarians worldwide observe World Polio Day. We have celebrated the progress we have made. But with clear-eyed determination, we also renew our commitment to fulfill our pledge to the kids of the world.

Michael Drake is a Tucson attorney and member of the Tucson Sunset Rotary Club.