Why a Victoria’s Secret Supermodel Is Fighting for a Polio-Free World

Rotary International ambassador Isabeli Fontana discusses the organization's campaign to eradicate polio.

Isabeli Fontana. (Photo: Facebook)

Jul 17, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Isabeli Fontana’s famous face has graced national campaigns ranging from Victoria’s Secret to L’Oréal—there’s a reason she’s on Forbes"World's Top-Earning Models" list—but she’s also the face of the cause she says matters to her the most: polio vaccination.

The supermodel was tapped by Rotary International two years ago to become an ambassador for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and traveled to India this past spring to see the program in action. Rotary also held its annual convention in São Paulo last month, where Fontana was a keynote speaker on the issue. For Fontana, her goal as ambassador is to get more deeply involved in the campaign and use her family as an example for others to follow.

“I do more than just lend my image and voice,” she tells me when we meet for dinner in Delhi one night; she had spent the day helping vaccinate kids and visiting polio patients at St. Stephen’s Hospital. “I took my youngest son to get the oral polio vaccine drops directly from the Brazilian minister of health,” she says.

So, Why Should You Care? India became polio-free in 2014 after battling the disease for nearly 30 years, but the campaign continues in order to ensure that no new cases emerge. India’s neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two remaining polio-endemic nations in the world. Nigeria, a third nation on the list, is poised to complete one year without any new cases and will be officially listed as polio-free on July 24. India has been used as a reference point—an example from which to draw lessons—for these other nations that are still battling the virus.

Below, Fontana and I discuss the global effort to end polio everywhere for good.

TakePart: How much did you know about Rotary and polio before you joined the campaign?

Isabeli Fontana: My knowledge of Rotary was limited to the service clubs that exist in so many neighborhoods in Brazil. At the time I was unaware of the size and ramifications of the organization. The same goes for polio. I knew about the importance of vaccination. I had supported national campaigns before, and my kids had been vaccinated according to the health department suggestions, but I had no idea about the endemic countries, how vulnerable so many kids are, that eradication was possible, or even the amount of work involved in monitoring cases around the world. I am a very hands-on person, and as you get involved you learn from everybody. The trip to India was, without a doubt, an immersion in the subject.

TakePart: During your visit to India, what did you learn about global health?

Fontana: The key lesson for me was that you need a lot of willpower and great coordination of skills to have the best outcome for all people involved. Polio eradication in India was a community effort where many participants with different roles were crucial to the final outcome. I learned that every single person must participate. We are all responsible, and we can feel empowered because of that. I also met with some Rotary partners such as WHO and UNICEF and asked questions about the challenges and lessons to make and keep India a polio-free country. The operation required as much scientific knowledge as cultural—and great expertise of human behavior. Then, I met with many Rotarians who had made it their goal in life to eradicate this disease. They went beyond just financing the eradication efforts and raising awareness about the disease. Those volunteers take the fight personally and are everywhere. It’s also impressive that they’ve kept the focus on eradication for so many years, to the point that we now talk about a 99.9 percent reduction of polio since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched [in 1998].

TakePart: What surprised you most during your visit?

Fontana: I left Brazil thinking I was going on a trip to help others and ended up being the person who was helped the most. The warm welcome I received from people in India, the lessons of perseverance and strength when faced with so many challenges, and the happiness and beauty in every corner took me completely off guard and inspired me to be a better person. With the exception of becoming a mother, this has been the most incredible experience of my life.

TakePart: Any individuals you’ll never forget meeting in India?

Fontana: I was in awe of the many women health workers I met. They work hard, even under harsh weather, to make sure kids are vaccinated, [even] in areas of difficult access. It was also a very emotional moment to visit the polio ward at St. Stephen’s Hospital. I saw young adults undergoing treatment [corrective surgery and physical therapy]. Every single one of those faces is in my memory, representing the warriors they are. But also, all that suffering could have been avoided with the vaccine. I talked with Dr. Mathew Varghese, the orthopedic surgeon who runs the ward, and was impressed with his passion as he shared stories about the patients, the before-and-after photographs of past patients, and the impact that the treatment had on their personal lives [i.e., being able to get married or work].

TakePart: You had your child immunized in Brazil to show support for the polio campaign. Have you found that people in Brazil are generally accepting of immunizations and getting their children vaccinated, whether for polio or otherwise?

Fontana: The government vaccination program is very strong in Brazil, covering the whole country. But like what happened in the U.S., the idea that vaccines are not necessary or are even harmful is spreading on social media and blogs in Brazil as well. We also recently had a measles outbreak. It could be an indication that some parents are not following the immunization schedule suggested by doctors. This makes the awareness about polio eradication and concepts like “herd immunity” even more important. Both of my boys have been vaccinated, and it was a personal choice at the time. But I think the discussion about vaccination needs to be a public one.

TakePart: Did you see any similarities between health programs in Brazil and in India?

Fontana: On my trip, I learned that many lessons of the health program in Brazil have been used to inspire the successful eradication program in India. There are indeed many similarities, such as the constant vaccination drives. But I also learned that both countries are experiencing a very different moment in polio eradication: India was certified polio-free very recently, and Brazil started a new phase in the process of global eradication where the injectable vaccine is now included in the protocol of vaccination. Before that, only the drops were given to children in Brazil.

TakePart: What more do you hope to do in the future?

Fontana: I came back from India very energized. My main focus now is to go where people are working hard to eliminate the last cases of polio. So a trip to an affected area is not out of the plans. I also have many friends who have become interested in the cause, so we will soon have more activities with them to raise funds. Something we have in the pipeline is that Brazilian fashion houses [Tufi Duek, Morena Rosa, and Sophia Hegg] have donated scarves to be auctioned to raise funds.

TakePart: How important do you feel it is for celebrities like yourself to volunteer for such international organizations and causes?

Fontana: Thanks to the exposure that is a part of my profession, I have become a role model to many people. I am very conscious of that. I feel it is my duty to actually redirect this attention to causes that will make this world better to all. This is a personal decision. But this is an option available to all celebrities.