The pronouncement this week from the World Health Organization that the spread of polio is an “international health emergency” must come as blow to local Rotarians.
But rather than deter them, it will likely steel their resolve. They have fought too long and too hard to allow such an insidious disease to regain a foothold.
Their challenge, however, is that they are not just fighting an illness, they are fighting ignorance.
Polio, by any measure, is a horrible disease. It usually strikes the young. Those it does not kill, it leaves crippled or horribly contorted – both can be a death sentence in the Third World countries where the disease persists.
Even those who escape death or disability can face complications years later in life.
For most of us, polio is a disease of the past; a memory like typhus, or cholera.
But it wasn’t that long ago that the threat of polio gripped this country. It was a time when the slightest hint of the disease closed schools and cancelled public events. Parents shuttered their children indoors for fear they might contract the deadly illness.
It wasn’t until Jonas Salk introduced the first vaccine in 1951 that North America began to see an ebb in the disease.
Soon, through extensive education – and a lot of money – that success was spread internationally. It was only a few years ago that the Rotary Club International, thanks to a massive donation by the Gates Foundation, was predicting the worldwide eradication of the disease in our lifetime.
But ignorance is a powerful force.
Rather than welcome a tool that could protect their children, the ignorant, angry and fanatical see some devious threat. In countries like Pakistan and Sudan aid workers risk their own lives to vaccinate the innocent.
It’s a reminder that while we can vaccinate against a disease, an inoculation against idiocy is still a long way off.