It’s a disease that most of us note only once in our lives: at the time of a simple inoculation that few will even remember.
And yet, when the first polio vaccine was introduced 57 years ago, it came at a time of fear and even panic.
Discovered by Jonas Salk and released in 1955, the vaccine staunched the march of a disease that was as terrifying as it was deadly. Those it did not kill were left paralyzed, or their lives inexorably altered by crippling deformities.
And, perhaps most cruel, the people most vulnerable were children.
Fear of the disease was enough to keep playgrounds empty in the mid 1950s and children inside.
Polio marked a generation, and Salk’s discovery of the vaccine launched one of the most aggressive immunization campaigns the world has ever seen.
Today, most of the world is polio free. The Americas earned that designation in 1994; Europe in 2002.
In only three countries does the disease remain endemic: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
For Chilliwack Rotarians, a world without polio is within our reach.
Rotary members from around the world have been involved in the fight to eradicate polio since 1985. The battle has been difficult, says Kevin Wood, past president of the Chilliwack Rotary Club, but steady victories have been achieved.
As early as 1988 there were an estimated 350,000 cases worldwide. In 2011, says Wood, there were 409.
Despite the success, much work needs to be done, he says. The focus is not only on the three countries were polio remains, but also on ensuring it doesn’t reappear in other countries.
There are several allies in the fight, Wood says. Along with Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stepped forward in 2009. And the United Nations, at a special meeting on Sept. 27 of this year, vowed to see polio’s complete eradication.
The fight is not cheap. Already Rotary has contributed more than $1.2 billion to wipe out the disease.
But that has still left a funding gap that Rotarians fear could derail 24 years of effort.
In May the World Health Assembly said polio eradication was a “programmatic emergency for global public health.” Although new polio cases are at an all-time low – fewer than 140 worldwide so far this year – a $945 million shortfall has affected several scheduled immunization efforts in polio-affected countries and could derail the entire program unless the gap is bridged.
If eradication fails and polio rebounds, says Rotary Foundation chair Wilf Wilkinson, up to 200,000 children a year could be paralyzed.
The Rotary International recently reaffirmed its commitment to raise an additional $75 million over the next three years to help bridge the funding gap.
That money comes from local fund raising efforts in communities like Chilliwack. John Blessin is well-know for the unique bird houses he sells to help fund polio eradication. And the recent Rainbow Wine Festival at the Best Western raised $2,150. “That will immunize 4,134 children that we have saved from ever contracting this horrible disease,” says Wood.
The efforts aren’t just financial. Rotarian Carol Tichelman is currently on her fourth trip to Africa to participate in Immunization Day in Ethiopia.
It’s a trip Debora Soutar experienced in 2010. She witnessed first hand the impact the disease can have on people’s lives. She remembers seeing a man so doubled over with deformity he was difficult to recognize and had to be carried by his friend.
The Rotarians, who make the trip at their own expense, help administer the oral inoculations to the children.
“The moms are very, very grateful,” says Soutar, “because they know how devastating the disease can be.”
Soutar plans to return because she understands the importance of the fight and how close we are to seeing a world that is polio free.
“The fact is it’s totally manageable and preventable,” Soutar says, “so there’s no excuse.”
• October 24 (Jonas Salk’s birthday) marks World Polio Day.
In early September, Rotary launched a new, interactive website — endpolionow.org – intended to educate, activate and inspire visitors to actively support the polio eradication effort. Visitors are encouraged to sign a petition calling for world leaders to commit additional resources to close the funding gap.