Dr HAINES (Indi) (11:47): The near-total eradication of polio is testament to what can be achieved through effective vaccine development, robust public health settings and strong community partnerships. While we’re only at the beginning of that journey as an international community, with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, we can be guided by the success of the polio vaccine. Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a paralysing and potentially deadly infectious disease that most commonly affects children under the age of five. The virus spreads from person to person, typically through contaminated water. It can then attack the nervous system and lead to devastating degenerative impacts.
When I was a nurse, way back in the 1980s, in Melbourne, the most seriously polio-affected, ventilator-dependent people had to live at the Fairfield hospital. They lived there until 1996 and then lived at the Austin hospital’s Bowen Centre until four new purpose-built houses were provided for them Thornbury in April 2007. Like many people my age, I can remember people in my community wearing painful callipers all their lives—and they were the ones who got off a little more easily than those people in Fairfield. And of course I also remember lining up for my Sabin, when I was a small girl, in my rural school in Eurack in south-west Victoria.
I want to pay particular tribute to the role of Rotary International and the countless local Rotary districts and clubs across Australia. They have worked tirelessly with global partners to eradicate polio for more than 35 years. As a founding member of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Rotary has been instrumental to the global reduction of polio cases by 99.9 per cent since its first project to vaccinate children in the Philippines in 1979—what an extraordinary thing. Rotarians have contributed more than $2.1 billion and countless volunteer hours to protect nearly three billion children in 122 countries from this paralysing disease. Rotary’s advocacy efforts have played a role in decisions by governments to contribute more than $10 billion to the effort.
While the Rotary campaign to eradicate polio is a global one, the efforts and hard work are truly local. There are countless members of Rotary clubs in district 9790, which spans my electorate of Indi, who have devoted decades of service to the polio eradication campaign, fundraising in their local communities to sponsor polio surveillance initiatives in high-risk areas, the vaccine rollout in hard-to-reach geographies and populations and effective public health awareness campaigns across South-East Asia and the Pacific to take away misinformation and stigmas associated with vaccination.
Recently I was invited to speak at the Rotary Club of Alexandra, and I was pleased to hear from the many Rotarians about their contributions to the polio and malaria eradication campaigns and their commitment to apply lessons learned to the COVID-19 vaccination program in Australia and abroad. I look forward to reaching out and speaking out with many other Rotary clubs across district 9790 in future to hear their insights and to learn from their wisdom on this important challenge too.
Rotarians worldwide know that effective vaccine rollout requires deep community engagement and respect for the views and natural hesitations of some. As I’ve said before in this place, if you’re confused about whether to have the COVID-19 vaccine—if it works and what the side effects are—and if you’re feeling anxious, that’s okay; it’s not wrong to have questions or to feel anxious. These are perfectly reasonable questions, and they’re questions for your medical practitioner to answer for you. I really encourage you: speak to an expert, a medical practitioner.
Before I was a public health researcher, I spent 30-odd years as a nurse and a midwife, and I know that nobody refuses a vaccine because they’re trying to harm themselves or other people; they do it because they honestly believe it’s the best choice for their family. We must remember this now more than ever and design effective vaccine awareness campaigns that inform, not alienate or patronise, and Rotary can really help us with that.
As the motion cautions, polio eradication efforts have slowed and the incredible progress made so far is now at risk. There’s work for us as a parliament to do to ensure that polio is completely eradicated. While wild polio only remains in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, there’s every chance that polio could re-emerge if we don’t finish what we started. The first major outbreak of polio was in 1894, and, while public health interventions and vaccine coordination have improved dramatically since then, it’s humbling to see the long road ahead of us with the COVID-19 vaccines. It is the experiences of Rotarians, who work so hard for us, that can truly help us in the mission to deliver effective vaccine awareness campaigns in the community so that we can achieve the results we have against polio with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.