How important is eradication of polio world-wide? It is so important, the founder of Microsoft and humanitarian, Bill Gates tweeted all day, Oct. 24, that on the sixth annual World Polio Day, a polio-free future is within reach. Gates especially included Rotary International in this important global mission.
The Rotary Club of Thomasville actively supports an end to polio globally and on World Polio Day, local club president, Andre’ Marria presented a compelling story why polio is still a critical issue. More than 250 people, including students from Bishop Hall, met at the Thomas County Board of Education auditorium, to learn more about the story of polio and why it must be eradicated.
Dr. Lorraine M. Williams, who specializes in otolaryngology in Thomasville, gave the audience a visual story about the horrific collateral damage from the polio virus to people. What starts as a flu-like illness quickly causes paralysis from minor to quadriplegic. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a polio victim as an adult and could no longer use his legs. According to the 2009 PBS documentary, The Polio Crusade, “Apart from the atomic bomb, America's greatest fear was polio.”
Today, in the U.S. we don’t hear about polio. The last American contracted polio in 1979. The first cases of the virus in the U.S. were documented in 1843 and by 1952, over 58,000 cases were recorded. There were 3,100 deaths and over 21,000 cases of paralysis. It was a national crisis. Polio has existed for thousands of years; in ancient times it was described through hieroglyphics in Egypt. Polio spreads fast and is a frightening disease. In 1988, 125 countries confirmed significant polio viruses.
In many parts of the world, children and adults who survive polio are called “crawlers,” because their legs are paralyzed, and they are unable to move about except through crawling. In the mid-20th century, wards of iron lungs were installed in hospitals to care for the children who were completely paralyzed. With the determined efforts of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary International, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation a global effort keeps the virus at bay. It will never be gone because it is in nature. But, through vaccination, we can stop the disease from spreading. Full eradication is the goal.
The global objective is for every child under five to receive three vaccinations against polio. Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine, composed of killed polio virus, was the first vaccine for the disease. His inoculation was announced safe on April 12, 1955. Dr. Albert Sabin felt an oral vaccine was a better alternative and he created a live-virus oral vaccine in the 1960s. He first tried it on himself and then tested it throughout the Soviet Union because Salk’s vaccine was already in use in the U.S. Sabin’s vaccine became the choice for global inoculation for ease of use, although Salk’s vaccine is still considered effective. The successful research of these two scientists has prevented 60 million people from a lifetime of paralysis and 1.5 million from death.
Dr. Salk tested the vaccine on over one million children, who were known as the “Polio Pioneers.” Early testing was done on a volunteer basis, and parents were so afraid of the disease they signed their children up without knowing the risks. Thomasville’s Nancy Tillinghast, Rotarian and past executive director of the Thomas County Public Library System (and New York Times Librarian of the Year 2006), showed the audience her original “Polio Pioneer,” card from 1954. She was one of the 1.8 million volunteered children.
Past District Governor of Rotary and Past President of Thomasville Rotary Fran Milberg is passionate about polio eradication and spoke about the generosity of other Thomasville Rotary members who pledge locally to help this mission.
“The Motto of Rotary International is 'Service Above Self,' and this global effort exemplifies its members commitment to others,” Milberg said.
“Rotary International thought they could eradicate polio in three years, but 39 years later we are still trying to stop its spread. There is no cure and it spreads quickly. The struggle to immunize babies under a year old globally is demanding. In India, for example, five million babies are immunized in one day alone. Rotary raises the money to pay for these efforts and the government and other agencies help. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation matches a dollar for every two dollars we raise and have already committed $500 million.”
The good news? In 2010, only 1,292 new cases of polio were diagnosed worldwide. In 2017, 22 cases were diagnosed, and to date in 2018, only 19 new cases of polio are reported. Three countries still see new cases — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. It is important to note, this is where U.S. soldiers are fighting or places of conflict where volunteers cannot safely vaccinate. It is critical that all children are vaccinated since the virus spreads easily and American’s are traveling to these countries.
To close World Polio Day, Thomasville City Council member Jay Flowers presented Marria a proclamation in honor of Thomasville Rotary Club’s commitment to the global eradication of polio. He stated that The Rotary Club of Thomasville, founded in May 1921, with its past, and present 141 members, has helped bring about the 99.9 percent drop in cases of polio since 1982.