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Getting to zero: Rotary’s stubborn campaign to rid the world of polio

A Pakistani health worker gives polio vaccine to a child at a neighborhood of Lahore, Pakistan, in 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

How close are we to ridding the world of polio, why has it taken so long, and why does this one disease campaign matter so much?

Carol Pandak

For this Humanosphere podcast, Tom Murphy talks with Carol Pandak, director of Rotary’s PolioPlus program. Folks have probably heard Bill and Melinda Gates speak over the years about how committed they, and their philanthropy, have been to eradicating polio. What many may not realize is that it largely has been the work of Rotary International over decades, well before the Gates Foundation even existed, that has gotten us close to eradication.

Pandak describes where the eradication effort stands today and what is needed to get to zero new cases. She makes the case for why we should care about polio, among all the many diseases out there, and warns if we stop supporting the concerted – and sometimes dangerous – vaccination programs, the world would see within a decade a resurgence of at least 200,000 cases annually.

Rotary and its more than one million members in organizations around the world decided to target polio in the early 1980s after the eradication of smallpox, the first and so far only human disease to have been wiped off the face of the planet. A successful fundraising and advocacy effort led for the adoption of a global resolution at the World Health Assembly to eradicate polio.

Children disabled by polio begging in Abuja, Nigeria. Mike Urban photo

The end is near, but the work is not done yet. Cases were identified in Nigeria last year, after it was thought to have defeated the disease. And challenges persist in Pakistan and Afghanistan where conflict and hindered access make it tough to deliver vaccines. But, as Pandak says, “we’re very close” to finally seeing zero. Listen in!

Before Murphy and Pandak talk polio, executive editor Tom Paulson and I go over some the week’s news highlights in the Humanosphere, beginning with the positive reaction to the Trump Administration’s nomination of Mark Green to take over the helm at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

At the same time that many in the aid-and-development community are encouraged by the nomination of Green, others are still worried about plans by the Trump regime to drastically cut foreign aid in favor of the ‘America First’ agenda favored by the new administration. Lisa Nikolau reports on how especially damaging the cuts will be to our neighboring countries in Central America. Though it’s not necessarily aid-related, she notes in a separate story on Venezuela just how easily it is to disrupt health services, leading to increased deaths of children.

We also noted a story by Joanne Lu about a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) is threatening to spin out of control and undermine efforts to combat this disease that remains one of the world’s leading killers. Russia, India, the Philippines and South Africa are the countries the CDC identified as largely fueling the rise of drug-resistant TB.

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About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or