How the Global Polio Eradication Initiative Began – Sir Clement William Bailey Renouf, AM

Without the visionary leadership of Clem Renouf as the president of Rotary International (1978-79), we would not be talking about the possibility of global polio eradication today.

Sir Clem – Foundation Member of the Rotary Club of Nambour, Queensland – led the international campaign to vaccinate every child against polio. Modestly, Sir Clem thinks of himself as an ordinary bloke who, thanks to a life-long liaison with Rotary, got to do an extraordinary thing. The opportunity came to him in July 1978 when he became only the second Australian to be elected president of Rotary International. Sir Clem decided it was time for the legion of Rotary clubs around the world to focus less on parochial projects and tackle a big-picture problem that would leave an indelible mark on society. He had been inspired by the World Health Organisation’s eradication of smallpox and came up with Rotary’s Health, Hunger and Humanity program that would initially see 6.3 million children immunised against polio in the Philippines at a cost of just $760,000.

“A lot of people say I spearheaded the eradication of polio campaign, but that’s not right. I just happened to know the right person to talk to”, Sir Clem said. The “right person” was Rotary district governor, Dr John Sever, who was head of infectious diseases at the National Institute of Health in Washington DC. Sir Clem put the question to him – was there another disease that could be eliminated? Dr Sever pinpointed polio, which was crippling 1,000 people every day – while an oral vaccine could be given for about 10 cents a dose. “I had no idea where that simple question would lead us – others would build on it, none more so than John Sever whose commitment to the goal of eradication has not wavered for more than 30 years”, Sir Clem said. “I used to say it would be eradicated in the next few years, but it gets harder the closer you get”, Sir Clem said. “But I intend to die in a polio-free world.”

The two short videos below (5 mins 48 secs and 3 mins 22 secs) relate Sir Clem’s wonderful legacy in his own words. At 1:56 minutes into “Sir Clem Renouf on Polio Eradication”, he clearly states “… the [Rotary International] Board at its September 1979 meeting passed a resolution, and the resolution was something like this: The eradication of polio and the alleviation of its consequences will be the primary focus of the health, hunger, and humanity program.”

Sir Clem Renouf Interview April 2010
Sir Clem Renouf Talks About His “Idea”

What is the Situation Today?

Polio is on the verge of eradication. Since 1988, years of unprecedented success by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has seen the number of cases around the world decrease by 99 percent, but the goal to guarantee the cessation of all ‘re-established poliovirus transmissions by the end of 2010‘ has failed. The final one per cent is proving hard to beat. Strains of the virus linger in parts of the developing world, and localised epidemics can still strike unexpectedly.

The videos below describe the polio eradication efforts in the last remaining countries (both endemic and non-endemic) in the world.

Filmmaker Sorious Samura takes us to the frontline of the global war against the crippling disease polio, where hopes for a final eradication of the scourge were undermined by an explosive and deadly new outbreak in Congo-Brazzaville in late 2010 (24 mins 59 secs). Ten years previously, Congo-Brazzaville thought it had seen the last of polio but from October 2010 to January 2011, 220 people died, and a further 368 people suffered from paralysis.

As a regional emergency response operation battled to contain the crisis, Sorious journeyed to its epicentre, the coastal city of Pointe-Noire to meet the most recent victims.

What will it take to stamp out polio entirely? With the high risk of further spread, Sorious highlights the desperate need to find a solution if dreams of a polio-free world are to be realised.

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This talk (23 mins 09 secs) by Dr Bruce Aylward was filmed in February 2011 at Longbeach, California, and posted on TEDTalks in May 2011.

Bruce Aylward is a Canadian physician and epidemiologist who in 2011 headed the polio eradication programme at WHO, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Polio is almost completely eradicated. But as Dr Aylward says: Almost isn’t good enough with a disease this terrifying. Dr Aylward lays out the plan to continue the scientific miracle that ended polio in most of the world — and to snuff it out everywhere, forever.

You can download the transcript (54.0 KB) of this talk.

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