Polio, once a global scourge, was on the verge of eradication in 2012. Since that time, it has reemerged as a global public health emergency according to the World Health Organization. Why has it now spread from its final strongholds in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan to at least 10 countries spanning Asia, Africa and the Middle East? It’s not because of changes in the virus or ineffective vaccines. The answer is war, and as we all know, “truth is the first casualty of war.”
The Taliban claim that immunizations can cause infertility or worse, and violently obstruct polio vaccinators while vilifying them as part of a U.S. plot. Indeed, in years past, the U.S. CIA did a great disservice when it disguised its officers as polio vaccine workers in efforts to capture Osama Bin Laden, giving fuel to the Taliban’s false claims and violence.
Efforts to reclaim the momentum in eradicating polio will require a renewed global effort, and ultimately the elimination of war itself. In our ever-shrinking world, it is only a matter of time before we see this scenario play out with a resurgence of polio in the U.S. and West, as more and more young families avoid vaccinating their children against polio, thinking it is a disease of generations past and in some cases a disease they have never heard of.
Both war and polio should be eliminated and we can do both. It will take unprecedented collaboration among humans across national and cultural lines, and will involve many organizations and associations.
There may be no organization in the world better suited to take on some aspects of the challenge than Rotary International, with its longstanding mission of peace and peace building, and a dedicated membership of 1.2 million Rotarians joined together in service work though Rotary clubs in 220 countries of the world, including China and Russia.
In our nuclear-armed, polio-infected world, President Kennedy’s statement that “mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind” remains true today.
We must not be naïve in this effort. Self-defense and international peacekeeping will always be needed, but violence is quickly becoming maladaptive. Peacekeeping and preventing war is much harder than fighting war, but the outcomes benefit everyone.
There will always be conflict – it is the tools of resolving conflict without war that must become the cultural norms. These are tools that already exist and that have been used to resolve every conflict that has ever been fought. They include diplomacy; cooperation and collaboration on international programs like polio eradication; appropriate foreign aid emphasizing the meeting of essential human needs of food, water, shelter, education, health care and a healthy environment; and, finally, adherence to international law, not unilateral action.
We must abandon unexamined assumptions, e.g., that war will always exist, that we can continue to wage war and survive and that we are separate and not connected. When we awaken to the reality of interconnectedness we see that polio cannot be eradicated without ending war.
As a ground-up organization, Rotary International has had a university-level peace fellows program for more than 10 years, pursuing understanding and international peace building. Individual Rotarians joined together to form a growing and active Rotarian Action Group for Peace in 2012. Eliminating nuclear weapons is an important step in this process. The Rotary Action Group for Peace has collaborated with the Nobel Peace Prize group Physicians for Social Responsibility, and their international affiliate International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, to educate on the humanitarian consequences of even a very limited nuclear war. This has resulted in developing an international physician Rotary speaker’s bureau of 79 physicians in 21 countries, speaking and engaging Rotary clubs the world over.