When I first journeyed to Japan as a Rotary exchange student in 1986, I could never have imagined that I would find myself 25 years later gazing upon the Tokyo Tower with several hundred Rotarians and global health leaders to mark a relatively unknown day on the calendar—October 24, a.k.a. World Polio Day. The lack of awareness of the day is hardly surprising, particularly considering that it is dedicated to a disease that few are aware still exists.
The reality is that most of the world has forgotten about polio, even though the disfiguring, disabling, and even deadly effects of the disease are still a reality for too many people.
In 1986, Rotary International was only one year into its heroic fight against polio. At that time, polio still claimed nearly 1,000 victims per day. In 2011, that number is less than 1,500 per year—a 99 percent reduction.
With only 1 percent remaining, polio is on the verge of being only the 2nd disease in history to be eradicated.
As recent outbreaks in China and other places that had been polio-free for years show, however, “almost” is not good enough. Polio anywhere is polio everywhere.
Unfortunately, the final leg of this historic journey has proven challenging. Geography and military conflict in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan have impeded delivery of the polio vaccine to those who need it the most. The economic downturn threatens already insufficient funds to finance vaccination campaigns.
Despite having had more than its share of challenges this year, Japan has remained one of the polio campaign’s staunchest supporters, including recently launching a new partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Perhaps the 3-11 disasters and the outpouring of support from as unlikely places as Kandahar helped remind Japan and its people about the importance of external aid in responding to challenges.
Tonight, the Tokyo Tower is illuminated in purple, the color of the 12-yen-per-dose liquid oral vaccine that has spared millions from polio. The illumination is part of a regional health dialogue and other events to advance collaborative approaches to health in the region, raise awareness of the need to finish the journey once and for all, and to shine light on what can be done to support the final push to end polio. For one night, Tokyo’s iconic landmark can serve as a reminder that when the tower was erected in 1958, annual polio cases in Japan were in the thousands. Only with the help of a newly introduced vaccine, effective immunization policies, and external aid was Japan able to eliminate the fear of wild polio virus for its people.
Confucius noted that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It also ends with one. I look forward to Japan, Rotary, and other partners being there with us for that last step. I’m thankful to friends in Japan such as James Kondo, Nori Shikata, Atsushi Tamura, and others who will be joining me in raising awareness of the historic opportunity to end polio and the actions that can be taken to support the effort. Will you?
For ideas on how you can join the movement, vaccinate a child, and otherwise contribute to the effort to conquer the Last Percent, please watch this video.