From a young age, Carol Johnston realized other people saw her as different.
She noticed the looks. She felt the pity and even the fear from adults who were still grappling to understand this epidemic overtaking the nation’s children.
“To think we live in a time now where we have available to us the vaccine and the medical assistance to totally eradicate this disease,” said Johnston, now a retired minister in Roanoke. “No one should ever have to live in fear of getting polio again,” she said. “We can eradicate it.”
Polio, once one of the most feared diseases in the United States, was wiped out by 1979 here thanks to the development of a vaccine. But work still remains to replicate that success in other countries. Polio is still classified as endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, according to the World Health Organization, and the number of cases diagnosed, while small, saw an uptick this year.
The Rotary Club of Salem is now joining forces with other groups to raise awareness of that fight. This year, for the first time, the club plans to add a booth highlighting the importance of polio eradication to its signature annual event, Olde Salem Days.
That community street fair, which regularly draws thousands to downtown Salem, happens Saturday.
It will showcase goods from hundreds of artisans along with food booths, live music, children’s activities and a classic car show.
The fun also doubles as a fundraiser for the local service club — its biggest one of the year. The money is used to further a variety of good works the club supports.
The local club is part of a larger effort kicked off by Rotary International to raise $50 million a year for the global campaign to end polio. That push is a continuation of anti-polio programs the service organization has been part of for the past three decades.
The fight to eliminate polio worldwide has made enormous strides over the last century — international agencies estimate the push has reached 99.9% of its goal.
But rooting out that final fraction of a percent has proved more challenging than once hoped. Combating the highly contagious and aggressive virus requires intensive immunization programs, education efforts and monitoring.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged to match every dollar raised by Rotary International with another $2 from the foundation.
“This effort is a frontal attack to close the final gap,” said the Salem Rotary in its own announcement.
Polio, it added, could become only the second disease, after smallpox, to be stamped out in every corner of the globe.
Johnston, 76, is a supporter of that effort. She contracted polio at just 16 months of age when an outbreak hit children in her hometown of Martinsville.
Polio is a virus that invades a person’s nervous system and spinal cord. In the early 1950s, before vaccines were available, the disease was causing more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Johnston was left in a leg brace for years and had to relearn how to take her first steps. Physical therapy and surgeries were part of her life through her teen years.
“No person or family should have to go through the physical pain and the emotional trauma that comes with this disease,” she said. “I feel very fortunate that I survived.”
“I so admire the goal that the Rotary Club has set,” she added. “Polio can be eradicated.”