The fight to make polio a disease of the past within a few years could falter due to ‘charity apathy’, campaigners have warned.
Campaigner and television presenter, Konnie Huq, told an audience at a polio Q&A event that if pressure isn’t kept up, the spread of the disease could reach epidemic proportions.
“It is easy for the media to think the polio campaign is boring, but we need to wipe it out. It’s so important for the media to not think it’s boring,” she said. “It would be a massive deal to say that the world is polio-free.”
The event, held at The Corinthia Hotel and organised to coincide with World Polio day, highlighted the work done by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Unicef and Rotary International to immunise 50 million people in India in two days.
“We are on the brink of an historical milestone. We are so close to achieving our goal of a polio-free world,” said Eve Conway, BBC producer and national president of Rotary International. “Eradicating polio is something Rotarians are determined to do.”
Konnie told the audience about her trip to India – polio-free since 2014 – with Rotary International to heighten awareness of the immunisation programme, which has seen a total of 2.5 billion children vaccinated. She said that many impoverished Indians live on and around rubbish tips where they search for items to sell, thereby increasing the likelihood of polio spreading due to the unsanitary conditions.
Polio is a virus that has been around for 5,000 years and only affects children under the age of five. In 1985 there were 1,000 new cases in 125 countries; 150,000 per year. In 2016 there were 27 cases of polio worldwide in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The last case of polio in the UK was recorded in 1985.
Polio sufferer, Gautam Lewis, who was rescued by Mother Theresa after being abandoned in the 1970s because of his disability, told the audience: “India was the most endemic of polio-infected countries. And there are lots of places where there are sanitation issues, but it has become a gold standard for polio eradication. Just because there is one or two or 27 cases, it can still cross borders.”
The team at Rotary International aims to ensure polio is eradicated by 2019, but people still need to be immunised, and governments need to commit more funds to the programme.
In answer to a question about whether there was a danger of ‘charity fatigue’, Konnie said that there was a challenge to keep the battle against polio in the headlines. She agreed that it had to be a scandal or an epidemic such as the Zika virus to grab the attention of the world’s media.
“News outlets are vying against each other,” said Konnie, who is a Purple 4 Polio Ambassador – purple being the colour of the dye used to show that someone has been immunised. “Polio was around in the 1960s and is perceived as a done deal. What people fail to realise is that it spreads so quickly.”
Eve added: “We really can do this, eradicate polio. We urge you to get involved and make history happen.”
Judith Diment, chair of the Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force, said that countries far smaller than the UK, such as Jersey, run several projects to support the eradication of polio. “There are no children under the age of six with polio in India. There is still interest throughout the UK in raising funds for the battle to beat polio. It is important that the Press reflects this.”
To learn more about the Rotary Organisation the team can be found on Facebook: