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Social media aids polio fight

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Updated: October 23, 2012 6:04AM

Social media is playing a key role in Rotary International’s quest to make up for increasing costs and recession-wracked countries’ funding cuts to eradicate polio — just as the goal reaches a tipping point.

“We are 99 percent of the way to making polio the second disease to be ended after smallpox,” said Carol Pandak, director of PolioPlus, the Evanston-based organization’s polio-eradication effort. “We have a chance to make history as a generation by eradicating the second disease.”

Rotary on Saturday is launching a website,, that includes an online petition Rotary officials intend to present to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at a United Nations session on polio eradication on Thursday.

The site, which launches in eight languages, lets users:

† Donate in real time and see where the money can be spent;

† Get an instant, unscientific estimate of their “social” value — the value of their tweet or Facebook “like” — based on the number of their followers or friends;

† Share their interest with friends on Facebook and Twitter from the website;

† Use a tracking arrow to see the decline in polio cases since the eradication campaign started 24 years ago.

Last year, 650 polio cases were reported worldwide, down from 350,000 when the effort started. The disease has never stopped in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Countries such as India and others throughout West Africa still immunize people to protect against outbreaks.

The campaign’s yearly budget of $1 billion has doubled, standing now at $2 billion, at the same time that some G8 nations and other struggling countries have pulled back donations to deal with more pressing needs in a global recession. The United States is the biggest donor and has held its contributions constant.

The funding shortfall is $945 million through December 2013. The money goes to UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) to monitor what’s happening and get the vaccine to places where it’s most needed, and to handle the more mundane duties of paying workers who organize the vaccinations and give drops of oral vaccine.

The Kansas City-based digital marketing agency that designed Rotary’s website sees the site’s interactivity as part of a trend to quickly move users to act on a problem and leave them with an intriguing or interesting experience.

“We designed the site’s functions to keep people engaged so people really want to use them, making the experience important to them,” said Todd Greathouse, technical architect at VML and its Version group.

The website adapts its layout to the screen resolution of people’s mobile devices because so many people access the Web on their smartphones and tablets.

The effort is part of a trend among non-profits aiming to gain followers by providing them unique information online. Public Citizen, for example, released a “White House for Sale” website that tracks major fundraisers identified by President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

The fundraisers, known as “bundlers,” often fund attack ads and keep secret the identities of people from whom they raise the money. The site,, lets users find the bundlers’ employers, the states where they live and compare this election’s spending with those of years past.

Nonprofits are combining such “active” data collection with geo-location technology to spot problems such as a locked polling place on Election Day or to learn where museum visitors using audio-guided tours stop and linger, said Holly Ross, executive director of the NonprofitTechnology Network, a Portland, Ore.-based group that helps non-profits leverage technology.

“The more advanced nonprofits are investing in business intelligence to decode data and figure out what it means,” Ross said. “They can figure out how to keep the doors open at the same time they can learn how to make the most impact.”

The Rotary effort also demonstrates how educators without medical degrees can find successful careers in global healthcare. Pandak, a Loop resident who grew up in Mount Prospect, earned a doctorate in adult education and a master’s degree in English from Northern Illinois University. She leveraged her education to work for children’s health at the American Academy of Pediatrics before becoming manager of the polio project at Rotary 12 years ago.

“So much of the work is about educating communities, political leaders, government officials and others,” she said. “It means explaining how the science is deployed and educating people about why it’s important.”

Ross echoed the theme. While statistics are important, change still takes time, she said.

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