The journey to end polio now
A friend of mine is dying of cancer. He is in his 70s and he has had a good and successful life.
I have always admired him because he has managed all of life’s challenges as a person who is disabled. When a child, polio crippled both of his legs.
He did well in school. He was employed as a civil servant for more than 40 years. There he had a desk job and didn’t need two strong healthy legs. He married a beautiful woman and they raised three successful children. He also kept his father’s small farm going - horses, cattle, tractors. He did what was necessary with the aid of crutches or walking canes. He was a community leader serving in executive positions of various clubs and organizations. Now he has only a few weeks to live.
So, I wrote him a letter. I told him how much I respected him all the years that I have known him, and I told him a good news story to cheer him up. I told him about Rotary’s Polio Plus campaign and the world-wide effort to eradicate the polio virus from the face of this Earth once and for all.
All the older readers of this article will have known someone who was or is still affected by polio, usually contracted as a child. Younger people won’t know because in Canada, polio has not been a problem for several decades - not since the vaccine was available to prevent the disease from being caught and being spread.
Not long ago, I read in the history section of a newspaper that all the schools in Toronto were closed in the 1930s because of a polio outbreak. According to a friend, who hails from Prince Edward Island, this was done at a certain time of the year where he
grew up. Nonetheless, his sister caught it. Their home was quarantined. She died as a young girl. That was in the 40s or 50s.
For many decades since the founding of Rotary, clubs all over the world have provided assistance to victims of polio. They have provided crutches, canes, wheelchairs and prosthesis. The Amherst club switched from a “fresh air camp” to a crippled children’s camp. Some people still call it that.
It was a Rotarian who came up with the idea that instead of treating the effects of the disease, the disease needs to be controlled by making the oral vaccine available everywhere, especially in countries that do not have a well-developed healthcare system. As a result, more than a million Rotarians, from over 35,000 clubs all over the globe, pitched in to raise money for a campaign called Polio Plus. Since then, the numbers of polio cases have dropped dramatically.
Then the World Health Organization got involved and the focus or goal changed from control or reduction to eradication of polio. With the help of WHO and UNICEF, the governments of various countries and their health departments took up the challenge. By 1994, the entire Western Hemisphere was polio free. The efforts continued. Rotary clubs kept raising millions, but tens of thousands of members also volunteered on immunization days. The numbers are staggering. There is not enough space available to share this success story in full. Here are some highlights and examples:
On a single day in April 1990, five million children were immunized at 6,000 sites all over South America. In India, 172 million children received the drops of vaccine in one single day. Since Polio Plus began in 1985, more than two billion children have been immunized. Last year, 430 million children in 39 countries received the vaccine.
Unfortunately, there are three variations of the polio virus and some re-immunization is necessary. Nonetheless, all but three countries are totally free. Without the eradication effort of Rotary and partners around the world, 17.4 million people, currently healthy and unaffected, would have been paralyzed. The number of polio-endemic countries has shrunk from 125 in 1988 to three - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In these countries, hurdles are thrown up by religion and political instability, but even there, the numbers are way down and in the teens instead of thousands of cases.
Bill Gates and his foundation have become involved and have donated hundreds of millions of dollars towards this cause. He has personally participated in applying the vaccine drops to children.
This year is the 30th anniversary of world Polio Day which was observed on Oct. 24.
It’s a wonderful success story. It’s not over, but it will be. I hope it has cheered up my dying friend. It should cheer up everybody.