Service above self: Rotarians fighting polio

Bethany Wivell finds that there’s more to the Rotary Club than street collections, and considers its momentous achievements across the globe

I’ve often walked past Rotarians collecting in my city centre. I’m ashamed to say that until recently, I failed to stop and listen.

I didn’t know that since making a pledge in 1985 to eradicate polio, Rotary International has helped bring the number of cases of the disease down by 99%. In 1985 there were 350,000 new cases of the disease every year. By the end of 2010, there were just over 1,000.

The Rotary Club is more than 105 years old. It began humbly in Chicago. Four friends met, effectively forming the first Rotary club. Now it is an international phenomenon with more than 1.2 million members across 200 countries.

With a Rotary club in just about every town and city there is, it is at the heart of community, with members who are passionate about the people and places in which they live and work.

Rotarians stand up for what is right and beneficial within their local area and overseas: they support those who need help, they strive to improve lives, they fight injustice and challenge wrongs within society. Essentially, they bring about positive change in their neighbourhoods by fostering and building strong communities. Every event, initiative or project is rooted in that notion – their mission is simply to serve others, to give something back, to advance world understanding, goodwill and peace through the collective skills, talents and energy of their members.

‘Service Above Self’ is the Rotarians’ motto. It exemplifies the humanitarian spirit of Rotary members worldwide. Globally, their main focuses are: economic and community development, peace and conflict resolution, water and sanitation, maternal and child health, basic education and literacy, and preventing and treating diseases.

The mission to eradicate polio is Rotary International’s most ambitious project to date. Known as PolioPlus, it is being recognised worldwide as a model of public-private co-operation.

“Since making a pledge in 1985 to eradicate polio, Rotary International has helped bring the number of cases of the disease down by 99%”

From 125 polio endemic countries there are now just three: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Regular immunisation programmes in these countries, supported by Rotary members from across the world, are working. In India the last recorded new case of polio was in January 2011. If no further cases are recorded, India could be declared officially polio-free in January 2014.

There is no cure for polio, so the best protection is prevention. For as little as 25p-worth of vaccine, a child can be protected against this disease for life.

In October 2012 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia, millions of dollars were pledged to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. In total, $100m has been donated by three Commonwealth countries. Bill Gates gave $40m. He believes: “If we all have the fortitude to see this effort through to the end, then we will eradicate polio.”

The Rotary International in Great Britain & Ireland (RIBI) are running numerous other initiatives that work directly with their local communities. Shelter Box, Rotary Shoe Box, Water Survival Box and Trade Aid Box are just a few of RIBI’s ongoing projects.

Then there’s the Rotary Spring Clean, which takes place in March and April every year. Thousands of volunteers get together to clean up their local parks, beaches, towns, streams, ponds and villages.

Working closely with schools and universities, RIBI also offers a number of scholarship programmes and exchanges. The Rotary Youth Exchange is regarded as the best exchange programme in the country. Each year, over 7,000 young people aged 18-25 are encouraged to develop a stronger understanding of different cultures. They are also given the opportunity to learn languages, make international friends and become an ambassador for their country.

RIBI also hosts a number of competitions aimed at celebrating young talent. This year a special scheme, London Inspire 2012, gave young people nationwide the chance to be part of the summer celebrations and submit Olympic-themed entries to the Young Writer of the Year and Young Photographer of the Year competitions. Sebastian Coe, Chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, said: “The Inspire programme is ensuring the legacy of the 2012 Games starts now, as projects like RIBI Young Photographer are enabling people to be part of the Games.”

The image of street collectors is a far cry from the dedication, hard work and achievements made by Rotary members across the world each and every day. Next time I see one I won’t walk past. Instead I’ll stop and tell them I’ve been humbled by the amazing work they’ve done.