Op-Ed: New Canaan Rotary Club’s Efforts to Combat Polio


Thursday, October 24, 2019 is World Polio Day. What do we care about Polio here in New Canaan? Plenty.

Today there are many local residents who have been personally affected by polio or who know of a family member or friend who has been affected. We have other neighbors who may be completely unaware of polio’s impact on the world. So World Polio Day is a great opportunity to share some history and very positive news regarding the quest to eradicate polio from the world.

Locally, the Rotary Club of New Canaan and its members have been supporting Rotary International’s Polio Plus effort since 1985. Outside of an initial capital campaign where members contributed directly, the club has dedicated a portion of its’ annual fundraising to support this international effort. In recent years, an Annual Golf event has been held to raise funds for Polio Plus. This year’s event, held earlier this month, was in partnership with the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce.

How did Rotary International’s bold plan and effort to eradicate polio from the world get started? Time for a little history.

From the 1950’s through the 1970’s, polio was a disease inflicting over 500,000 men, women and children annually around the world. Over 55,000 of those cases were right here in the United States and many of them in our local community. Polio could cripple, paralyze or otherwise inflict lifelong disabilities.

Rotary began as a civilian service club in Chicago in 1905. By the 1970’s it had grown into an international service organization, with thousands of clubs in countries around the globe. Up until this time, Rotary Club’s around the globe worked independently on local projects. 

However, in 1978, Rotary International convened a group that became known as the Health, Hunger and Humanitarian Committee. This committee was charged with finding the first true international service project for Rotary. They looked at 16 different projects suggested from around the world, but wanted to focus on one where the organization could have immediate success. The chosen proposal came from Dr. Benny Santos, a Rotarian and Doctor in the Philippines, a country where Rotary was well represented. That year, some 6 million children were immunized against polio; with the vaccine administered by Rotary Club member volunteers. It was a huge success and people took notice. This civilian service club had taken a major step toward eradicating polio from the Philippines in one smooth effort.

A couple of years later, in 1982, Rotary convened another group and charged it with ‘looking into the future’ of the organization. Called the New Horizons Committee, this group started looking ahead to Rotary International’s 100th Anniversary in 2005 and decided to go bold. Leadership of Rotary International approved their idea of giving the polio vaccine to every child in the world. The project was called “Polio 2005”. 

By 1985 the scope of this effort was estimated to cost $100 million dollars and would entail immunizing over 500 million children and the effort was renamed “Polio Plus”. Within 3 years, Rotary International had raised $240 million toward the effort and had joined forces with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the US Centers for Disease Control. In 1988, polio was found in more than 125 countries around the world and it was estimated there were 350,000 new cases each year. It was clear that more money and resources would be needed.

The next year Rotary clubs throughout Mexico mobilized to immunize 13 million children against polio. The effort then moved through Central and South America. And country by country, new polio cases dropped to near or at zero.

By Rotary’s 100th Anniversary in 2005, the vision was not quite achieved, but amazing progress had been made. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s children had received the polio vaccine and new cases were reported in only four countries, including Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Seeing the tremendous impact made to date, in 2007 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation joined Rotary and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. At that time, Bill Gates commented that “the progress on Polio is a reminder of what people can accomplish when they are bold, determined, and willing to work together.”

One thought on “Op-Ed: New Canaan Rotary Club’s Efforts to Combat Polio

  1. Thanks for this, Leo! Your op-ed provides a valuable history lesson on Rotary’s key role in this effort, and it also gives us a chance to thank EVERYONE who so generously contributed to this year’s golf outing fund raiser. (You know who you are!) The proceeds from the items that were raffled or auctioned off are helping to make the eradication of polio a reality once and for all. THANK YOU!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *