When Bob Rogers moved to Sebastopol from South Lake Tahoe in 2006, little did he know that in seven short years he would become President of the Sebastopol Rotary club, and later, District Governor of Rotary district 5130, spanning along the coast from the California-Oregon border to the Sonoma Marin county line. Nor did he realize at the time that he would play a part in eradicating polio – a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease that he himself had suffered from as a young child.
“My neighbor started asking me to come to a Rotary meeting,” Rogers said. “I wasn’t particularly interested in doing weekly meetings because we were still traveling a lot, having recently retired. But he kept it up and was persistent. So finally I went and had fun. After a couple meetings I decided to join. I was told about my obligations and someone said, almost in passing, ‘oh, and we’re working on eliminating polio from the world.’ I said that polio had been gone for years but he replied that yes, in the United States, but not in the rest of the world. Well if I had any resistance it melted then because I had polio as a child when I was five years old.”
Rotary district 5130 is not the only district to focus on eliminating polio. The effort first started in 1978 when Clem Renouf from Australia, then President of Rotary International, was searching for a project in which all rotary clubs could collaborate. This was around the time that smallpox was eliminated from the world, and with 1.2 million members, in 35,000 clubs worldwide, he knew the club could make a real difference in eliminating another disease. The project first started in the Philippines and then spread worldwide. Renouf worked with Rotarian John Sever, M.D., head of the Infectious Disease division at the National Institute of Health and laid out a plan to distribute the oral polio vaccine. Eventually the Rotary also collaborated with WHO — the World Health Organization, Unicef and the CDC, or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since 2007 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has worked to form the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, or GPEI. By 1987 Rotary had raised over $247 million (more than double their goal of $120 million) and within months of launching the program, 200 million children were immunized in two days in China, 100 million in one day in India and over 13 million in one day in Mexico.
Rotary hoped to wipe out the disease in eight years but it has taken over 30. However, they are close to accomplishing their goal. For a disease to be officially considered as wiped out, no cases need to be found for three years. In 1985 when Rotary first started the effort, 350,000 children per year contracted polio worldwide, almost 1,000 per day. Last year there were 37 and this year there has only been eight cases, three in Pakistan and five in Afghanistan.
“We can’t stop until every case is gone,” says Rogers, citing the example when a foreign visitor started a measles outbreak in Disneyland several years ago. At the time 93 percent of children were vaccinated against measles, but it managed to infect some of the 7 percent that were not, spreading the disease across several states. Therefore, the Rotary is committed to the cause until it can be safely said that polio has been eliminated from the world.
“The impossible happened,” says Rogers. “Or what everybody thought would be impossible, and that is India was declared polio free six years ago. With the massive population and the living conditions some of those folks are in, they didn’t think it was possible, but we did it. And here we are now on the brink of the unbelievable, the unthinkable – a world without polio.”
With 400 million children being born every year, the organization needs $1.6 billion over the next three years to inoculate those children and permanently wipe out the disease. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation generously matches each donation, two for one. So for every $1 donated, $3 goes to the cause. With each dose only costing 60 cents, five children can be inoculated for every dollar given.
As District Governor, Rogers oversees 2,334 members in 46 clubs throughout the district and has made it part of his life’s purpose to help the cause in ending polio. The clubs throughout his district routinely do fundraisers and events to raise money for polio vaccines, and when a fellow Rotarian suggested the idea of a bike ride, riding from one end of their district to the other, Rogers thought it would be a perfect event to raise awareness of, and funds for, their fight against polio. And so, the event “Pedal 4 Polio” was born.
The six-day bicycle ride starts on August 14 in the most northern end of district 5130 in Crescent City, and continues for over 300 miles to its most southern city, Petaluma. The 15 riders will average about 55 miles per day, and about 15 additional riders will ride part of the distance. The final leg will be from Cloverdale to Petaluma on Saturday August 19, where the local clubs will host a big celebration in Lucchesi Park, and announce how much money was raised, through pledges to riders.
The district’s goal is for every Rotarian in the district to participate. If each one pledges just $0.10 per mile to sponsor a rider, (about $35 per person), the organization would raise $84,000 for eradicating polio, and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation two for one match, that number would increase to $252,000. At 60 cents per dose, that represents inoculations for 428,000 children. At the time of this writing, the group already raised $45,731, or $137,193 after the Gates Foundation match, amounting to 228,655 doses of vaccine.
While Rogers continues to work both here and abroad on a variety of projects that the Rotary focuses on in the areas of education and literacy, maternal and child health, community development, peace and conflict resolution, water and sanitary conditions, and disease control, eradicating polio continues to be a top priority and passion for him.
“I’m 75 now and this has give my life great purpose,” says Rogers. “I’m on a roll and we’re going to get rid of this!”
To help support Rotary’s efforts in eradicating polio, visit http://tinyurl.com/RotaryFoundationPolioPlusFund to donate.