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Nelson Mandela, South Africa's president, arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Oct. 1, 1994 in New York.
J. Kirk Condyles/AP
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How Nelson Mandela Encouraged African Leaders to Take Action on Polio

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN's Global Goals, which include actions for global health and well-being. Oct. 24 is World Polio Day, a time to look back on the progress made in the fight to eradicate the second disease in history. You can join us by taking action on global health here.

In 1995, every country in Africa was affected by polio. More than 75,000 children became paralyzed each year, and health efforts on the continent were focused elsewhere — until renowned leader Nelson Mandela decided it was time to kick polio out.

Thanks to Mandela’s launch of the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign in 1996 — and the efforts of governments, health workers, and committed parents — polio remains endemic in just one African country today.

And Mandela’s commitment to its eradication should be remembered as an important part of the South African leader’s legacy.

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Polio is a highly infectious disease that can cause paralysis and death, and in 1988, it plagued 350,000 children per year around the world. It was then that the World Health Assembly established the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) with the initial goal of eradicating the disease by the year 2000.

While polio efforts were undertaken in many continents following the launch of the GPEI, Africa continued to struggle to implement health initiatives to tackle this disease.

Immunizations against polio were not yet routine across the continent, and many governments did not place polio efforts as high on their list of priorities, given the lack of financial resources and contending health issues, according to Rotary, the organization at the forefront of the fight to end polio.

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In 1996, Rotary approached Mandela, who agreed it was important to tackle polio across Africa.

Mandela joined Rotary’s then president, Herb Brown, at a press conference to urge all African leaders to implement National Immunization Days (NIDs).

Later that year, Mandela launched the influential Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign with 1996-1997 Rotary President Luis Giay and Rajendra Saboo, Rotary foundation chair.

The response was swift.

The campaign raised awareness in such a way that more than 30 countries in Africa organized their first NIDs. Thanks to Mandela’s initiative, 420 million African children were vaccinated in 1996.

The impact of this and Mandela’s other important work was so recognized by Rotary that in 1997, they presented him with the Rotary Award for World Understanding, which is awarded to a person or organization whose work serves and represents Rotary ideals, especially when it comes to international understanding, goodwill and peace.

The success of the campaign would continue in the fight to eradicate polio, in conjunction with GPEI’s other initiatives around the world.

In 2001, 575 million children were vaccinated across 94 countries, including 16 million in conflict-ridden countries in central Africa, according to GPEI.

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In 2004, coordinated NIDs were carried out across 23 countries in Africa, targeting 80 million children. This was the largest synchronized polio immunization effort ever held on the continent.

In 2008, after a polio outbreak spread from Nigeria to West Africa, the WHO made its eradication a top priority.

While there have been ups and downs with resurfacing outbreaks, the disease is now very nearly eliminated, with only 20 wild poliovirus cases in the world reported in 2018 so far.

Sparked by Mandela’s leadership, African leaders have played key roles in eliminating polio across the continent through the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign, and they must continue to progress by improving immunization efforts that can successfully reach every last child.

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Today, 21 years since the campaign kicked off, Africa has almost eradicated this disease.

In fact, Nigeria, the last endemic country in Africa, has not had a wild poliovirus case since 2016. But while this is a significant achievement in the fight against polio, the battle is not yet won.

All countries must continue to support global polio eradication efforts and improve access to vaccines and health care around the world if we’re truly going to reach the goal of eradicating polio once and for all.