In the months leading up to the FIFA World Cup in June, Rotary clubs across Africa have been gearing up for the final push to kick polio out of the continent.

On 23 February, Rotary's 105th anniversary, a Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign launched with the symbolic kicking of a soccer ball signed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a polio survivor.

The journey began in Cape Town, South Africa, one of the host cities for the 2010 World Cup.

The ball will travel through 22 polio-affected countries en route to the RI Convention in Montréal, Québec, Canada, in June. The primary sponsor of the campaign is DHL Express.

During the ball's four-month journey, Rotary clubs in the polio-affected countries will hold soccer-related polio awareness events to mobilize public support for immunization activities. Along the way, the ball will be signed by each national PolioPlus committee chair. Follow the ball's journey on the Kick Polio Out of Africa blog. An interactive map shows African countries' efforts to end the disease.

Synchronized immunization activities took place in 19 Central and West African countries 6-8 March, with more than 400,000 health workers and volunteers reaching over 85 million children. The initiative was made possible largely by US$30 million in funding from Rotary International.

The synchronized immunizations were part of an ongoing response to the epidemic that spread in 2008 from polio-endemic Nigeria to neighboring countries that had been polio-free. The effort will be repeated in the same countries on 24 April.

"We at Rotary are proud to have provided the necessary funding for the March rounds, and we call on others to play their part in making Africa polio-free by providing funding necessary for more high-coverage campaigns," says African Regional PolioPlus Committee Chair Ambroise Tshimbalanga Kasongo.

The synchronized immunization strategy has proved effective. The first wave of infected countries -- Benin, Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, and Togo -- stopped the outbreak in 2009. In addition, this year the number of cases in Nigeria has plummeted to just one as of 23 March, compared with 90 for the same period in 2009. However, the outbreak is still active in nine other countries.

"What this means in very simple terms is that we are now reaching more children. Ending polio in Nigeria is now more than ever before seen as realistic, clearly achievable," says Nigeria PolioPlus Committee Chair Busuyi Onabolu. "And Rotary International, as catalyst for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, is determined to mobilize the citizenry toward ensuring that every child is immunized."