Ahead of the UN General Assembly, Evanston-based humanitarian group holds strategy session
with members from around the world including Pakistan and Nigeria
(Richard Bajjalieh/Chicago Tribune)
By Susan Berger, Special to the
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.
President Sakuji Tanaka gave his full attention and valuable input during
the two strenuous days of the PolioPlus seminar.
“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.
Finley, End Polio Now Zone 31 Coordinator, Past RI President Jim Lacy,
Chair, Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force for the US and John Germ, IPPC
Vice Chair for Development push hard for an end to Polio.
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.
IPPC Chairman makes a point as Boris Crestia, Rotary Public Image
Coordinator, Zone 20 from Benin and Busuyi Onabolu, National PolioPlus
Committee Chair, Nigeria listen intently.
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.
Mirchandani, Africa Regional PolioPlus Committee Chair, Benin; Past RI
President Jonathan Majiyagbe, Advisor to the International PolioPlus
Committee, Nigeria and Olayinka H. Babalola, End Polio Now Zone 20A
Coordinator, Nigeria discuss the issues at hand.
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.”
National PolioPlus Committee Chair, Pakistan, Past Rotary International
Director Ashok Mahajan, Member of the International PolioPlus
Committee,Ritje Rihatinah, End Polio Now Zone 6B Coordinator, Pratheep S.
Malhotra, RI President Sakuji Tanaka along with the two Japanese
interpreters spent two days together at the same table relentlessly coming
up with ideas and suggestions.
But accessibility to politically
charged areas is difficult, preventing youths who need inoculations from
“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.
Malhotra, Rotary Public Image Coordinator, Zone 6B represented Thailand at
the PolioPlus seminar in Evanston, USA.
“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 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?”
PolioPlus seminar was given a sense of urgency with the participation of
Past RI President Carl-Wilhelm Stenhammar, Past RI President Jim Lacy,
current President Sakuji Tanaka and Past RI President Wilf Wilkinson.
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
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
Malhotra, Rotary Public Image Coordinator of Zone 6B, presents a copy of the
Pattaya Mail to Sakuji Tanaka, President of Rotary International during the
PolioPlus Seminar held at the Hilton Garden Inn in Evanston, USA on August
21-22, 2012. Peter explained that the Pattaya Mail Media Group, which
comprises of the Pattaya Mail, Pattaya Blatt (German), Chiang Mai Mail and
PMTV, are staunch supporters of Rotary and regularly publicize Public
Service Announcements (PSA) and articles on the good work of Rotarians in
their publications and TV programs.
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.”
presents a special publication on the eradication of Polio in Pakistan to
Past RI President Wilf Wilkinson.
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.”
International Director Ashok Mahajan, Member of the International PolioPlus
Committee, Aziz Memon, National PolioPlus Committee Chair, Pakistan and
Ritje Rihatinah, End Polio Now Zone 6B Coordinator share their ideas.
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.