I was talking to a young High School girl recently about polio, and I happened to ask her if she knew what it was.  No, she didn't.  In her life time it was not an issue, the disease had been eliminated.  In my life time it certainly was an issue.  As a child almost everyone knew of someone who had been affected by polio.  That this crippling disease has nearly been eradicated has been due in no small measure to the efforts of Rotary International, in particular by the efforts of Bob Scott a member of the Rotary Club of Cobourg.  

A couple of years ago Bob Scott was sitting on a balcony overlooking the banks of the Nile, near Cairo.  The sun was setting, casting a hazy pink colour over the desert landscape.  After a very long and weary day in the Sahara desert helping to immunize children against the polio virus Bob was feeling tired and disturbed - he had seen a little sixteen month old girl who had acute polio.  She had no name and her mother was ashamed because her baby had a paralyzed arm.  Bob was upset because, for a mere sixty cents, this need not have happened.  

Dr. Bob Scott is the Past Chair of the Rotary Foundation.  This is a not-for-profit corporation that supports the efforts of Rotary International to provide overseas humanitarian, educational, and cultural exchange programs.  One of the Foundation's major projects is to achieve the world wide eradication of polio.  For many years this has been Bob Scott's driving mission in life.  

Polio is crippling disease that kills or paralyzes.  Growing up in England in the fifties I remember that this was the one disease that everyone feared.  There was no cure and it struck down the fit and healthy as well as the weak and sick.  In 1959 Jeff Hall an English international soccer player died of polio, and the whole country went into mourning.  One of my recent work colleagues, Arthur, walked with a limp because, as a child he had contracted polio and had spent months in an iron lung before recovering.  

The vaccine against polio has been available since the late fifties.  It was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin, a Polish scientist who moved to the USA to escape anti-semitism.  He searched the world to find a weak strain of the virus that would stimulate the immune system without giving the disease.  Advantages of the live vaccine are that it does not require booster shots and it can be taken orally on a lump of sugar, making it easy and cheap to administer.  Shortly after it became widely available in developed countries, children became immunized and the crippling disease was virtually eliminated.  Not so for the underdeveloped world where lack of financial resources and health care infrastructure prevented a widespread application of the vaccine.  

The drive to eradicate polio began in the year 1985 when Rotary International made a commitment to supply the vaccine to any country that requested it.  It was estimated that only about $120 million would be required.  Three years later the World Health Organization made a commitment to eradicate polio world wide, and Rotary International decided to enlarge their effort to join in the eradication of the disease.  Its Polio Plus campaign was inaugurated.  

I often think about this.  The idea that a service organization could be so bold as to think it could tackle something of this magnitude is completely ludicrous.  It defies logic.  The scale, difficulties and complexity of such a project are so enormous that it would seem impossible for a service organization even to contemplate.  Yet some people in the organization were daft enough to think it was possible and were persuasive enough to convince the organization to do it.  

Since then two billion children have been given the oral vaccine and over two hundred countries, territories and areas are now polio free.  Over the years Rotary has committed more than $650 million to global polio eradication.  Today there are only four countries that are not polio free - India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.  The progress is remarkable.  In 1988 there were 350,000 children crippled by polio, in 2006 there were fewer than 2000 cases, and in 2007 there were 1200.  The goal is within reach.  There are only small pockets of infection left.

Since 2006 Bob Scott has served as Chair of the Rotary International Polio Committee and has been a leading figure in the final push to completely eradicate the polio virus.  He was traveled the world, working in the field to administer the vaccine, and meeting heads of state and key figures in the United Nations to persuade countries to join in the difficult eradication program.  

One factor in the success of the campaign has been the ability of Rotary to bring others on board.   Partners in the campaign include the World Health Organization, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and, of course, all the governments of the world.  

In 2008 Bob helped to negotiate a huge donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who offered to donate $100 million towards the eradication of polio providing Rotary matched the pledge dollar for dollar over a three year time span.  For Rotary International this means that each of the 32,000 Rotary clubs must increase its fundraising by an average of $1000 per club for three years.  For some clubs this is an extraordinary effort, and for some it presents no great difficulty.  

Cobourg has one of the largest and most active Rotary Clubs in the country.  Size for size no other community has a club like it.  Every year it donates nearly a quarter of a million dollars to support a host of local and international projects.  The major fundraisers are Rib Fest, Sportsmen's Night and the Waterfront Festival.  The Cobourg club alone has donated over $280,000 to the polio fund.

For Bob Scott this is a personal crusade.  Bob was raised in Edinburgh, Scotland and received his medical degree from Edinburgh University.  He emigrated to Cobourg in 1966 and worked as a general practitioner.  He has always been active in Rotary and since 2006 he has served as Chair of the International Polio Committee.  Every year he circles the globe lobbying heads of state and meeting officials at the United Nations.  

Bob also does the grunt work.  This explains why he was spending the day out in the Sahara desert by an oasis under the hot sun, giving hundreds of children their oral polio vaccine.  Bob has a sense of urgency because the little girl with the paralyzed arm has a baby brother.  Bob is determined that Rotary will get the job finished so that her baby brother and thousands of others will not get infected with the crippling disease.