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When it comes to big ideas, eradicating a worldwide plague ranks among the biggest.
That is exactly what Rotary International, a nonprofit service organization, is doing. And it expects to have polio erased from the face of the earth by 2018.
"When Rotary first took on this challenge in 1985, there were 350,000 cases of polio per year in 125 countries," said John Hewko, general secretary of Rotary International, based in Evanston, Ill. "Today, Polio is in just three countries Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern Nigeria and there are only 29 known new cases."
It's not a coincidence that the three countries still beset with the disease are also centers for terrorist activities, making it dangerous for volunteers to travel the countryside to deliver vaccines.
"We have had vaccinators killed by ISIS, Hewko said. "It makes it much more difficult."
Hewko, who spoke at Rotary's Salt Lake City club Tuesday during a vacation in Utah and sat down with me for an interview after the talk, said this year there have been 25 cases in Pakistan and four in Afghanistan. "We haven't had a case in Africa since last August," he said.
Rotary began its international war on polio after the local Rotary Club in the Philippines took on the challenge in 1979 and drastically reduced incidents of the disease in that country.
"We thought, if they can do it in the Philippines, why can't we do it throughout the world," said Hewko. If Rotary meets its goal by 2018, polio will be the second disease eradicated from the earth, after smallpox.
After Rotary began its program in 1985, it was joined in the effort by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, UNICEF and the Gates Foundation.
"We have a three-pronged approach," Hewko said.
First is fundraising through the Rotary Foundation, which has raised $1.4 billion since 1985 to buy the vaccine, store it, distribute it and pay the expenses of the vaccinators throughout the world. Second is advocacy, getting the support of governments and health ministries, and third is "boots on the ground," getting volunteers to go into cities, villages and burgs to get the people to come out and then to perform the vaccinations.
Eradicating polio many be Rotary's most ambitious goal, but the organization has always taken on life-changing projects since its founding in Chicago in 1905.
Rotary now has 3,400 clubs in more than 200 countries and 1.2 million members.
The Salt Lake City club, which has about 250 members, was the 24th Rotary club in the world, established in 1911.
Over its 110 years of existence, it has brought large water and sanitation programs to underdeveloped countries and promotes education around the globe. The Salt Lake City Rotary has adopted Franklin Elementary, a Title 1 school in Salt Lake, and supports an ambitious reading program there.
Hewko, who practiced international law in eastern Europe and later ran a foreign- assistance program in the George W. Bush administration, said the inclusion of women as club members, which finally came about 80 years after the organization's establishment, was one of the most important developments in the history of Rotary.
Rotary joined numerous other service organizations in the 1980s to change its male-only requirements in the midst of a national women's movement for equal rights. Women now make up about 20 percent of Rotary's membership and routinely serve in leadership positions.