"Polio, more than anything else, has really shown us the importance of immunizations."

The World Health Organization (WHO) on August 25, 2020 announced that transmission of the wild poliovirus had officially been stopped in all 47 countries of the African region. Two years later in February 2022, a new case of the Wild poliovirus was detected in Malawi. This news was a major setback as the last polio case in Malawi was reported in 1992.  

Since then, many new cases have been reported from countries who thought the virus had been eliminated from their land. The vaccination drives have been intensified since then and organizations like WHO, CDC, UNICEF, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International are working together to eradicate the virus. RFHA speaks to Michael McGovern, Chair of Rotary International’s Polio Plus Committee, on the current situation, the steps being taken and how RFHA plays a crucial role in Polio eradication. 

Get Immunized

“Polio, more than anything else, has really shown us the importance of immunizations. Back in the 1950s when we first had the polio vaccine, it was obvious with all the available statistics that providing the vaccine is the only way to eliminate polio. You create immunity within the community as a result of people getting the vaccine. Under immunization is a big problem,” says Mike McGovern. 

He expresses concern over the rise in under-immunization is the last 5 years. “All the work and studies done around the world shows that vaccines work. It is sad to see that in some countries, there is still vaccine-hesitancy. We try our best to reach out to every country that needs the help. In November 2021, we went to Pakistan and approached everyone under the age of 10 for the measles and rubella vaccines. The German measles is very prevalent in that area. This is where I feel that the work being done by RFHA is so important. Their reach, the way they work wonderfully in partnerships and the impact they have made is brilliant,” he adds. 

The RFHA Connection

Mike has worked very closely with Marion Bunch, Founder of Rotary Action Group for Family Health & AIDS Prevention. “I served as the RFHA chair for sometime and have seen very closely the impact it has made. I was very impressed with the way RFHA works with partnerships and Marion’s passion and involvement with the cause made it possible. And now, with RFHA being headed by Sue Paget, one can clearly see that she shares the same passion as Marion,” shares Mike.

“From the impact numbers being somewhere in 100s and 1000s in the initial days of the RFHDs, it has reached over millions of people today. They work with the government and the sponsors and the result is just mind-blowing. And it is not just HIV, there are so many interventions that they provide – testings, screenings, vaccinations. To me, it is one of the most amazing things Rotarians accomplish.” 

This need for health screenings is not going to change any time soon. “Moreover, it is not just providing the services, but it’s also about treating people with dignity. It might be a very small thing but it makes a huge difference is someone’s life,” he adds. 

“Sometimes there are certain images you see and it leaves an impact on your mind. I remember seeing this picture of a man being screened at a health day in Uganda who had just been told that he was HIV positive. You could see the shock on his face. What really hit me was thinking about what was going to happen next - in the next few minutes he had to go to his wife and tell her he was HIV positive. The story behind that picture was so much more painful.”

“But then, you think about RFHA and you know why it is so important. RFHA is not just helping people become aware but also helps them with the next steps to fight a disease. This not only helps an individual, it helps protect the whole family. This is what RFHA is all about,” he says.

Polio Plus Program

In 1985, a decision was made by Rotary International to tackle polio eradication. In 1988, it officially launched the effort. Talking about the memories of visiting some of the countries during the Polio Plus program, Mike says it has been a fascinating experience.  

“In November 2021, I was in Pakistan, near the Kashmir border area, and a couple came on a motorcycle with their kid and said, ‘We want the Polio vaccine for our child’. This is what we want – for people to want to get the vaccine,” he points out. 

“Then, I visited Kolkata in India and met the girl who was identified as the last person with the wild poliovirus case in India. To know that out of a billion people in a country, this one is the last case there, is uplifting. This is the moment you realize that every little step that we are taking, is making a huge difference.”

Malawi Polio Case

“The Malawi case came as a shock as we hadn’t seen any Wild polio cases in the African continent in about 4 years. And suddenly, we get a report of a young girl, about 3 years old and the reports showed it was a Wild poliovirus, very similar to a virus circulating in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2019,” he says.

“We immediately started the environmental sampling. It is also very close to the borders of Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. So, the WHO, UNICEF, CDC, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi and Rotary International have upgraded what you call surveillance, which is more testings and more immunizations. These were planned anyway, but now they have been accelerated. We are also adding the social mobilization techniques that encourages people to go and get the vaccines.”

“The fight against Polio continues and we are doing everything possible to achieve our goal to eradicate the virus,” he signs off. 

Mike McGovern joined Rotary in 1986 as a member of the Rotary Club of South Portland-Cape Elizabeth, Maine, USA. He has served as club president, district 7780 governor, district foundation chair, Rotarian Action Group chair, international training leader, RI committee member and chair, trustee and vice chair of the Rotary Foundation, and director and vice president of Rotary International. He currently serves as chair of the International PolioPlus Committee. 

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