How we got there: WHO African region is certified free of wild poliovirus

It was 1996. Wild polio would paralyze 75,000 children across Africa that year. A decade earlier, African health ministers had agreed to a goal to reach 75 percent of children with vaccines by 1990 — but the gains they had made were erased in the face of a deteriorating regional economy, lingering drought, competing health priorities, and debilitating civil wars. Polio eradication needed a champion.

Rotary and its partners found one in Nelson Mandela. Approached by Rotary leaders, Mandela, then president of South Africa, agreed to advocate for the cause. At the July 1996 summit of the Organization of African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union), Mandela galvanized his fellow African heads of state to make polio eradication an urgent priority. Within weeks, Mandela, with Rotary leaders by his side, launched the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign, using soccer matches and sports stars to rally support. By the end of the year, more than 30 countries had held National or Subnational Immunization Days, and 60 million children had been vaccinated. “The involvement of the African Union, particularly of Mandela, meant so much for us,” Okudzeto says. “It was fantastic.”

Rotary members used their respected roles in society — and often their personal charisma — to advocate for their governments to become active in polio eradication. “Security and political will were the biggest challenges,” says Richmond-Ahoua, the Côte d’Ivoire PolioPlus Committee chair from 1996 to 2014. “We have to convince civic society, opinion leaders, parents, traditional leaders, and religious leaders. Ending polio was not an option; it was an obligation.”

Rotary members used their respected roles in society to advocate for their governments to become active in polio eradication.

Such advocacy work wasn’t glamorous; it involved regular meetings with ministers of health and their staff members to remind them that poliovirus was still there. And sometimes Rotary members had to get creative to convince recalcitrant leaders that it was their responsibility to immunize the citizens of their country. Richmond-Ahoua tells a story about this.

It was 2000, and there had been a coup in Côte d’Ivoire. The new government didn’t want to carry out National Immunization Days. Richmond-Ahoua decided to go to the head of state’s home — without an appointment.

Upon arrival, she asked to see the wife of General Robert Guéï, who had been put in charge after the coup. “They looked at me as if I was mad,” she says. “But Rotarians take risks when they want something.” After waiting more than five hours, she was finally called in to see the first lady, Rose Doudou Guéï. When she explained why she was there, the first lady was in complete agreement, and she not only convinced her husband of the importance of the NIDs, but attended one herself. “She’s a woman. She has children. She understood,” Richmond-Ahoua says.

Richmond-Ahoua’s story is one dramatic example of the everyday advocacy by Rotary members to keep polio at the top of the political agenda in countries throughout the continent. Though now Africa is wild polio-free, the work will continue, Richmond-Ahoua says. “We have to ensure that the political will is strong to finish the job.”

Kaba recalls looking at a map of Niger with Tandja, the country’s president from 1999 to 2010. “Niger is a huge country, the size of California and Texas combined, and two-thirds of the country is desert. He said, ‘Can we eradicate polio from this country?’” Kaba remembers. “I said, ‘Yes, with your help, we can.’”