Amid the worst health crisis in decades, it can be easy to forget that the world is on the brink of a major health milestone.
Polio, a highly-contagious virus that leaves children paralysed, is set to become the second-ever human disease in history, after smallpox, to be eradicated — with the number of global cases now cut by an enormous 99.9%.
The success of polio eradication is thanks to the hard work of countless health organisations, governments and campaigners. Still, the world would not be where it is now without the efforts and influence of one Australian man: the late, great Sir Clem Renouf.
Renouf, born in 1921 in Ingham, Queensland, became the president of Rotary International in 1978.
Rotary is a volunteer-led international organisation made up of tens of thousands of clubs all working to promote peace, goodwill and humanitarian service. The organisation’s clubs, up until Renouf’s presidency, each primarily operated in isolation.
After being inspired by the eradication of smallpox, Renouf, however, urged Rotary’s then 850,000 global members to unite for the same mission for the first time.
That mission? To achieve a world where every child can receive the life-saving polio vaccine.
Under Renouf’s leadership, Rotary’s board passed a resolution to focus predominantly on polio eradication as part of the organisation's Health, Hunger and Humanity program in 1979. Because non-health professionals can administer the oral polio vaccine, Rotarians raised millions and delivered the vaccinations themselves to children in the Philippines.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, polio was still affecting 350,000 people a year, mostly in developing nations.
"We didn’t need medical people, we could do it ourselves,” Renouf said in a Rotary International video. “That was the basis for which we decided to embark upon the polio immunisation program.”
Six years later, Rotary raised a further $248 million, enough to launch PolioPlus — the first and largest internationally coordinated private-sector support of a public health initiative. The funds allowed Rotary to commence immunisation campaigns in countries around the world, from the Ivory Coast to Brazil, Indonesia to El Salvador.
'Rotary takes ordinary man and women and gives them extraordinary opportunities to do more with their lives than they ever thought possible'. Sir Clem Renouf, former President of @Rotary who has died. #PeopleHelpingPeople@DarlRotary— DarlingtonRotary (@DarlRotary) June 12, 2020
Rotary’s polio campaigns were incredibly successful.
They were so successful that they piqued the interest of the World Health Organisation (WHO) — which had previously refused to work alongside Rotary in the late 1970s because the WHO saw Rotary as amateurs that “didn't know what they were talking about.” After close to a decade, the WHO requested Rotary’s help to establish a truly global, continuous polio program.
In 1988, Rotary spearheaded the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) alongside the WHO.
Since its inception, the public-private partnership — led by national governments, the WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — has gone on to vaccinate hundreds of millions of people.
Over 18 million individuals are walking today, instead of paralysed by polio, because of the GPEI.
"Without Rotary International lobbying, pressuring and forcing agencies to talk to each other, and governments to talk to agencies, we never would have started the GPEI,” Chris Maher, a senior advisor to the Director-General of the WHO, said in a Rotary International video.
In 2020, Renouf passed away with work still left to do before his dream of a polio-free world could be realised.
Polio remains endemic in just two nations, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Polio, however, has the potential to come back at any time. In fact, if polio immunisation campaigns were to stop, upwards of 200,000 individuals per year could be affected within a decade.
The COVID-19 pandemic also has the potential to reverse gains already made it the fight to end polio. At least 50 million children worldwide missed their essential polio immunisations earlier this year, after routine immunisation campaigns were halted because they contradicted physical distancing recommendations.
In the lead up to World Polio Day on Oct. 24, you can take action to help achieve Renouf’s goal of a polio-free world.
Call on Australia to pledge new funds to the GPEI so the organisation can continue its life-saving work here.