Ahead of the UN General Assembly, Evanston-based humanitarian group holds strategy session with members from around the world including Pakistan and Nigeria. Mary Stitt is an 87-year-old retired elementary school principal, mother of five, grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of six. The Arlington Heights resident also is part of a worldwide effort by Rotary International to eradicate polio. Stitt has traveled to India, Niger and Nigeria a total of six times since 2004 to inoculate children with polio vaccine. When she walks down the streets of Nigeria, she says, she is easily recognizable because there are not too many elderly white women.
“They call me Grandma Mary,” said Stitt, a Rotarian for 20 years who has stayed active following cardiac stent surgery in 2009. “The last time I was in Nigeria in the fall of 2010, we were out in the neighborhoods, and a woman said to me, ‘I know you.’” Stitt is one of more than a million Rotarians who have donated their time and money to a program called PolioPlus, which started in 1988 with the goal of eradicating polio, a highly infectious and crippling disease.
To date, Rotary has raised more $1.2 billion for an effort that has reached more that 2 billion children in 122 countries.
The results of the efforts by Rotary and other organizations battling polio are staggering. In 1988, 125 countries were polio-endemic and more than 350,000 children paralyzed each year. In 2011, there were 650 new cases globally in 16 countries, according to the World Health Organization. This year, as of last week, there have been 128 new cases in four countries.
Three of those countries, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan, have never been polio-free. They have accounted for 123 of this year’s cases (the others have been in Chad). The disease continues to present a significant challenge, not only to the health of people living there but also to those from other countries who come in contract through travel. Officials battling polio fear that a rebound in overall cases could harm eradication efforts.
In August, 50 Rotary leaders from the U.S. and nine other nations met at the organization’s headquarters in Evanston to strategize for a United Nations General Assembly meeting Sept. 27 at which U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to issue a strong call to action in support of polio eradication.
The polio virus primarily strikes children under 5, according to the World Health Organization. It causes paralysis by invading the nervous system, sometimes just hours after being contracted. One in 200 who get the virus will be paralyzed, and among those, 5 to 10 percent will die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. The United States, once gripped in fear of the disease for decades, is one of many parts of the world considered polio-free, but children (in the USA) still are inoculated.
Aziz Memon, the national chairman of PolioPlus in Pakistan, who gave a presentation at the Evanston meeting, said terrorism, corruption, floods, inaccessibility, religious misconception and a drop in routine immunizations have been barriers toward worldwide eradication after years of tremendous progress.
“This is the time, this is the best time,” Memon said, explaining that the world is at a tipping point in eradication. Holding up his thumb and index finger, he said, “We are this close.” But accessibility to politically charged areas is difficult, preventing youths who need inoculations from receiving them. “The issue is in the north FATA region (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan near Afghanistan), where the war is going on and drone attacks are going on, and we are not allowed there,” Memon said.
Memon explained that following the death of Osama bin Laden, local officials will not allow vaccinators into the area. Shakil Afridi, a local doctor recruited by the CIA to obtain DNA from members of bin Laden’s family, entered bin Laden’s home on the pretense of vaccinating for meningitis. Since that time, efforts to vaccinate children for polio in the FATA region have been thwarted. “They don’t allow us to enter there,” Memon said. “When the people (from that region) are displaced, they move all over Pakistan and can transmit polio.”
Organizers take comfort in the success they have had in eradicating polio from India. According to The World Health Organization, that country had 75,000 new cases in 1988. That was reduced to 741 in 2009, 42 in 2010 and 1 in 2011.
In Pakistan, Memon said, notable personalities have joined the efforts to immunize. Cricket star Shahid Afridi has produced TV commercials in which he says, “Do you choose a cricket bat or crutches?” Assefa Bhutto Zardari, the 19-year-old daughter of slain Pakistan President Benazir Bhutto and the first child in that country to be vaccinated against polio, has also made public service commercials.
And Americans like Stitt, who hopes to make another trip abroad this winter, are doing their part. In 2008, Stitt met a 7-year-old girl in Jos, Nigeria. She was sitting on the ground, her limbs shriveled by polio, and she couldn’t move. Stitt paid $150 to get her a bicycle-propelled wheelchair. When she returned to the states, Stitt organized the Arlington Heights Rotary to raise $2,500 for wheelchairs for children in Jos crippled by polio. The goal, however, is to prevent children from contracting the disease.
Richard Rivkin, 64 of Deerfield and a member and past president of Northbrook Rotary, led a team of 20 to India in February. While polio has been virtually eradicated in India, children still need to be vaccinated because it borders Pakistan, where the disease is still endemic, he said. He participated in a three-day national immunization during which 197 million children were immunized.
Rivkin said he and his team arrived in Moradabad, and in addition to working at booths and stands and going house to house, they also went to train stations. Each child would receive two drops of vaccine and then their little finger would be marked with a semipermanent marker.
“It is an amazing experience to watch a parent’s eyes and face as we are putting life-saving medicine in the mouths of their children,” Rivkin said. “We will never know if any of the children that our team gave vaccine to will grow up to be a teacher, a scientist, a government official or a business leader. We don’t know. But we did our part.”
Rivkin said the Indian government is committed to sharing their expertise and techniques and technology with neighboring countries Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Ten years ago India was thought to be the biggest challenge, just because of the sheer numbers of the population,” he said. “The sheer numbers are staggering. India has four times the population of the U.S. compressed into one-third of the land mass of the continental U.S.
“With the government and support of the world community, Rotary, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we put this together and were able to achieve this milestone,” Rivkin said. “With the continuing support of the international community, (the worldwide eradication of polio) can happen.”
Carol Pandak, the manager of PolioPlus in Evanston, warns that while the numbers of polio cases are low, the funding required to interrupt the transmission of the virus is significant, “Through 2013 the funding gap is right now $945 million,” Pandak said. Rotary International estimates a $40 billion to $50 billion savings from polio eradication, funds that could be use to address other health issues. The savings in human suffering, they say, are immeasurable.