rotary-polio-soccer.jpgRotary International made a promise to help kick polio out of Africa, and this month, with a football signed by Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the group wraps up a massive immunization mobilization this spring that targeted more than 100 million African children under the age of five, bringing their dream to the brink of reality.

At the humanitarian organization’s annual convention held in Montreal last week, the football — signed also by dignitaries from more than 20 African nations — was presented to Rotary president John Kenny to thunderous applause.

When former President Nelson Mandela launched the Kick Polio out of Africa campaign originally in 1996, almost all countries in Africa were still suffering from polio. Today, polio eradication is nearly complete across Africa. Nowhere is progress more evident than in Nigeria — the last remaining polio endemic country on the continent – where case numbers have plummeted by 99 percent, from 312 cases at this time last year, to three cases in 2010.

“Polio eradication is not optional — it is an obligation,” said Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua, Rotary’s National PolioPlus Committee Chair, as she presented the honorary ball. “We must commit to overcoming the remaining obstacles and free Africa from this crippling disease, which ruins the lives of children.”

Tapping the continent’s excitement over the 2010 World Cup, the signed football culminates Rotary’s Kick Polio Out of Africa Campaign, the four-month, Pan-African public awareness and immunization campaign.

The ball passed through 23 polio-affected countries en route to Montréal. However, the Kick-Out finale was held in Alexandria, where Egyptian National footballer Islam El-Shater kicked the ball into the Mediterranean Sea — symbolically kicking the disease off the continent.

“While most of the world is polio-free, it still threatens children in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East,” said Rotary International President John Kenny. “Kick Polio out of Africa shows the tremendous resolve of our global partners — the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention —  to come together to fight this disease.”

In his keynote address at the Rotary Convention on June 22, Bruce Aylward, director of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the World Health Organization (WHO), encouraged the thousands of Rotary members in attendance to share the “terrific news” that polio is on the run, and that Rotary’s vision of a polio-free world is within sight.

“In the past 12 months you have proved, without a doubt, that polio can be eradicated. The world has also learned the full consequences of failure,” said Aylward, referring to a current polio outbreak in Tajikistan which is now showing signs of stopping.

Beginning in 1985, when polio paralyzed more than 350,000 children in 125 countries every year, eradication has been Rotary’s top philanthropic goal. Since then, polio cases have been slashed by 99 percent worldwide, with fewer than 1,700 cases in 2009. Just four countries remain polio-endemic: Nigeria, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. However, other nations remain at risk for infections “imported” from the endemic countries.

As the volunteer arm and top private sector contributor in the polio eradication initiative, Rotary has contributed more than $900 million and countless volunteer hours to immunize more than two billion children in 122 countries.

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