Travelling with some of the unsung heroes of the fight against polio

Rotary volunteers Rotary volunteers from around the world have helped to eradicate polio from India

Related Stories

You might well ask what a retired dentist from Berkshire, a businessman from Derbyshire who makes shovels, and a nurse practioner from Lancashire are all doing in the backstreets of Delhi.

Two causes unite them: Rotary and polio.

Dressed in bright yellow shirts, the Rotarians are doing a roaring trade at their impromptu vaccinations booths. The children can't wait to be immunised.

"It's chaos," says Adrian Stabbins, the retired dentist from Windsor. But he has a smile on his face, and is clearly enjoying himself. "We've done 150 vaccinations so far - it's wonderful."

I confess my knowledge of Rotary has been pretty limited. I am used to seeing their symbol on the outside of country hotels in Britain where they meet. I know it's an international network of clubs for professional people who want to serve the community. But that's about it. And why, you may ask, are they concerned about polio?

It began in 1979 when Rotary pledged to immunise millions of children in the Philippines. It was a huge success and the organisation became the first champion of polio eradication.

The group here from the UK comprise many retired couples, a father and daughter and a grandfather and grand-daughter. They pay all their own costs to be here, and spend several days visiting the poorest parts of Delhi immunising children against polio.

Journalists, on the whole, are a cynical bunch. You could argue the money they pay getting here would be better spent in a donation to Unicef or Save the Children. But that would miss the point. When they leave here the volunteers spread the word and help prevent polio from being forgotten about in countries which have long since eradicated the disease.

Rotary has raised $1bn (£630m) to fight polio, and their advocacy has helped ensure that the disease gets a high profile.

Mike and Bernice Yates, from Rotary Club of New Mills and Marple, help organise the trips to India. He says their bright yellow shirts fascinate people and help ensure children are not missed. "The Rotarians who come on these trips really do make a difference. It is about giving something back and there can be no better objective than beating polio".

I'm old enough to just remember polio in Britain. In 1961, around 80 people died from the virus in England and Wales. Ian Dury, who went to my school some years before me, contracted polio as a child and was left disabled by the condition. Even today there are still many people with post-polio syndrome, which can occur decades after initial illness.

Priyanka Kumari Priyanka Kumari now enjoys the benefits of repeated operations

What it will take to eradicate polio from Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan - the three worst hotspots for polio - is the same level of political will and organisation seen in India. The world is now at a crossroads - it can build on the success of immunisation in India which has been polio-free for a year. If it does not, the risk is the virus will re-establish itself here and in other countries.

I'll leave the final word from India to 15-year-old Priyanka Kumari. She attends Akshay Pratishthan School in Delhi, which has a mix of children, both able bodies and those with a range of disabilities.

Priyanka got polio as a baby and for the first seven years could only crawl. Then she had repeated surgery and now walks with a crutch and calipers.

Her class performed a dance routine and Priyanka gave a tennis demonstration. "I enjoy tennis and dancing," she said. "But I see my future as a singer. I've never suffered any discrimination having polio. But I will be delighted if no other child has to wear calipers like me."

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

Defeating cancer, the 'evil genius'

Can we win the war against cancer? Over the past 18 months, Panorama has followed a group of patients on drug trials. Some who'd been given months to live, are keeping cancer at bay for years.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The congratulations for Rotarians is well deserved they have worked extremely hard over the years for eradication.
    Thankfully we eradicated Polio in the UK. There are survivor's, they are at this time facing the Polio Ghost creeping up on them. Many are now suffering Post-Polio Sydrome, muscle weakness, fatigue and many other symptoms. We are still here and our rehabilitated bodies are failing us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    My wife and I went to Delhi for the National Immunisation Day In November 2011. We 'tacked on' a holiday, it was expensive but was so worthwhile. Your report says Rotarians have raised £630 million. It doesn’t say that most of that money for the vaccines was raised from – or given freely by – ‘ordinary people’. They, the supporters of Rotary club efforts – deserve recognition, too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    An item on the BBC news this evening waxed lyrical about how India was defeating the polio disease. And perhaps if the hypocritical Indian government authorities spent the £280 billion the UK provides in aid each year to spend on health initiatives rather than developing space and nuclear programmes, such diseases would have been eradicated long ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Those who do not recognize this achievement as a massive step in the best direction should be made caware of the fact that we shall not conquer poliomyelitis until every person who contracted it has 'shuffled off this mortal coil'. It's known now that surviving nerve cells take over the work of those destroyed. In old age the overworked cells are not quickly replaced: reflexes and balance suffer!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Congratulations to Rotary International for initiating the campaign to eradicate polio from the face of the world more than 25 years ago in addition to providing the volunteers necessary to carry out the immunisation programme. Thanks also to the 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide who have helped raise the funds required to see the project through.


Comments 5 of 11


Features & Analysis

  • Signposts showing the US and UK flagsAn ocean apart

    How British misunderstanding of the US is growing

  • Before and after shotsPerfect body

    Just how reliable are 'before and after' photos?

  • Hillary Clinton frowns.Something to hide?

    Hillary's private emails threaten her air of inevitability

  • Mukesh SinghNo remorse

    Delhi bus rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back

BBC Future

(Getty Images)

What it’s really like to die

The seven experiences you face at the end


  • Former al-Qaeda double agent Aimen DeanHARDtalk Watch

    Islamic State is about revenge says former al-Qaeda member turned spy Aimen Dean

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.