Some of us are old enough to remember the fear of polio back in the 1950s. We were told to stay away from swimming pools; we had friends who were confined to an iron lung for months; friends who would forever be at least a little disabled; friends who are today suffering from post-polio syndrome. It was a frightening epidemic. One of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the 20th century in the United States.
Polio (poliomyelitis) is a highly infectious viral disease which affects mostly young children, spread through contaminated water. The vaccination for polio was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955, and thus began a nationwide immunization program, which had eliminated naturally occurring polio from the U.S. by 1979.
The effort to attack this disease worldwide featured a commitment by Rotary International to supply and deliver vaccines to the Philippines in 1979 and to initiate its now well-known Polio Plus campaign in 1985.
Major partners have joined the cause. Today the effort is led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which includes Rotary International, UNICEF, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
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In 1988, when the Global Initiative began, polio was paralyzing more than 1,000 children every day, mostly in developing and third world countries. Since then, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized, an effort that continues unabated today. International investment from more than 200 countries has topped $11 billion.
Since Rotarians’ efforts have begun, more than 10 million cases of polio and over 1.5 million deaths have been prevented. Countless lives have been positively changed by Rotary’s commitment to the elimination of this terrible disease.
Amazing progress has been made. In August of this year it was announced that Nigeria had been without a case of polio for more than one year. It was the last country in Africa where polio was endemic. (It takes three years of no cases to be declared “polio free.”) Despite overwhelming odds, India has been declared polio free. Today there are only two countries that still have cases of polio appearing, although in very small numbers: Afghanistan and Pakistan. So far this year, only 44 polio cases have occurred worldwide (down from more than 330 at this time last year). Immunization programs are ongoing in these dangerous and undeveloped places. The Rotary motto is “We are this close!”
Rotarians in Idaho have contributed through Polio Plus and volunteered in a variety of ways including traveling to far off places to help with immunizations. There are 43 Rotary clubs in Idaho with nearly 2,000 members. Over the last five years Idaho Rotarians have contributed nearly $350,000 to Polio Plus.
World Polio Day is Oct. 24, a date that honors the birthday of Dr. Jonas Salk. Special events will be broadcast on Friday, Oct. 23, from New York City over the Internet. Visit www.rotary.org for details.
We are this close!
John D. Biggs is the public image coordinator for Idaho Rotary District 5400 and a member of the Boise Metro Rotary Club.