A new book in the field of public health highlights Rotary’s role in the global effort to wipe out polio, and places it in the context of humanity’s relentless struggle to contain the world’s epidemics.
In “The Health of Nations: The Campaign to End Polio and Eradicate Epidemic Diseases” (Oneworld Publications), British journalist and Sunday Times best-selling author Karen Bartlett surveys the global landscape of epidemics past, present, and future. Beginning with the 1980 eradication of smallpox, she guides us through more timely threats such as the Ebola and Zika viruses, and looks ahead to a future without malaria, measles, or polio.
“Who decided to rid the world of polio? Not politicians or global health organizations, as you might expect,” she writes, in one of several chapters devoted to polio. “The starting gun was fired by Rotary International, a network of businessmen more used to enjoying convivial dinners, raising money for local good causes, and organizing floats to carry Santa Claus around suburban neighborhoods at Christmas.”
Bartlett offers a comprehensive, readable account of the polio-eradication campaign’s history and Rotary’s unlikely role as its chief advocate. From epidemiologist John Sever’s early suggestion that Rotary adopt ending polio as an organizational mission to the first immunization drives in the Philippines and Central and South America, the world community doubted both the idea of a campaign targeting a single disease and Rotary’s capacity as a volunteer organization to execute it.
The narrative traces Rotary’s mission to reach all the world’s children with Albert Sabin’s polio vaccine, the formation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), and the struggle to interrupt transmission in the world’s poorest communities, particularly in densely populated countries like India, which has not reported a new case since 2011.
“Polio eradication is a twentieth-century dream, conceived by idealists and driven by big international institutions and mass mobilizations of volunteers, working together to make a better world for all,” Bartlett writes. “It must succeed or fail, however, in a twenty-first century marked by factionalism, religious intolerance, and rising inequality.”
Aziz Memon, chair of Rotary’s National PolioPlus Committee in Pakistan, is interviewed about the challenges facing his country, one of the few where polio remains endemic and conflict has slowed progress. Carol Pandak, director of PolioPlus at Rotary headquarters, weighs in on the contributions of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in both funding and high-profile advocacy. Other prominent voices from Rotary’s GPEI partners chime in throughout.
Based in London, Bartlett has previously worked in politics and written for Newsweek and Wired. She’s produced documentary films and written nonfiction books, including a biography of musician Dusty Springfield and a collaboration with Anne Frank’s stepsister Eva Schloss on Schloss’ memoirs.
Article by Sallyann Price