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Before Bill Gates became a polio warrior, there was Ezra and the Rotarians

Celebrating Rotary's commitment to polio eradication, a display on the north side of the new Gates Foundation campus

For the record, Bill Gates couldn’t have become the world’s leading advocate for polio eradication if not for people like Ezra Teshome. People who wear sprockets on their heads.


I hung out on Wednesday night with a small gang of Seattle Rotarians, including Ezra and Bill Gates Sr., who had braved the winter storm warning (of, yeah, that dusting of snow) to celebrate Rotary’s 106th anniversary and its decades of commitment to seeing polio wiped off the face of the planet.

Here’s a bit from Rotary International about itself, and images from around the world (like the one above displayed on the north side of the new Gates Foundation campus) calling for an end to polio.

“Rotarians have been fighting polio for a quarter of a century,” Bills Gates says in a documentary film called “After the Rains,” which profiles the Rotary polio campaign and especially Ezra’s work on polio in his homeland of Ethiopia. “You’ve inspired our foundation.”

Ezra Teshome

Now, I don’t know that much about the Rotarians but I do know Ezra (he’s my insurance agent) and what Rotarians worldwide have contributed to the polio eradication campaign.

And I think I can fairly say they haven’t received nearly as much attention as Bill Gates has on this whole polio eradication gig. That’s not the philanthropy’s fault. Gates almost always mentions Rotary when he talks about polio.

I suspect our tendency to neglect Rotary’s crucial role in the fight against polio could be due to the sprockets … or because most of us tend to think of Rotary as one of those business-networked do-gooder organizations like Kiwanis or the Lions Club.

It’s easier to get excited about polio as billionaire Bill Gates’ cause than it is a bunch of Rotarians.

But that would be missing a big part of the story of the global polio campaign. I can’t go into that story, though here’s a little bit about Ezra Teshome’s role. Interestingly, Ezra (who grew up in Ethiopia) didn’t become a polio warrior until after he moved to Seattle and paid a visit to his homeland as part of a Rotary trip.

“That’s how it happens,” said an exuberant Stan Miner, one of the Rotarians I met last night while we were trying to view the lighted display, as ice pellets hit us in the face.

Miner, owner of Bad Boys’ Wines, Inc., said the whole idea of Rotary is about using business networks to implement the kind of humanitarian efforts that build strong social ties and economies.

Another leading Seattle Rotarian, Rosemary Aragon, noted that the organization began its work on polio when a chapter in the Philippines decided in the late 1980s to assist with local efforts in the global eradication, launched by the World Health Organization. It’s taken much more work than anyone expected, she said, but Rotary has continued to step up its commitment of money, resources and people as needed over the past two decades.

“We’re 99 percent of the way there,” said Aragon. “We’re going to see the end of this disease.”


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.