By Todd Hester
Hester is a Presbyterian minister and a member of Rotary Club of Salem.
Polio was so much a fact of life in the 20th century that the 32nd president of the United States was a survivor.
A decade after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, polio paralyzed 15,000 children a year in the United States. Thankfully, a vaccine was developed in 1955, and in 1994, the International Commission for the Certification of Poliomyletis Eradication declared the Americas polio-free.
But the rest of the world wasn’t — and isn’t. Nigeria is close to being declared polio-free, and once that certification is made, only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan — will have polio cases within their borders. The World Health Organization reports that the cases of polio in those two countries combined is currently 66.
That sounds great, but it’s actually bad news. In 2018, only 33 cases were diagnosed globally, so in one year, polio diagnoses have doubled — again, according to the World Health Organization. Polio is a virus that mutates at an alarming rate, and it is highly contagious. Polio is most frequently conveyed through water or sewage. Countries with remote and/or nomadic populations are also high risk and susceptible to a polio outbreak.
For every one person who presents with polio symptoms another eight to nine carriers have the virus without showing any symptoms. A global economy results in global travel, which raises the risk factors for polio transmission.
The British Broadcasting Corporation reported that the virus was found in the sewage system of São Paulo’s Viracopas International Airport — in 2014, as the World Cup was bringing travelers from across the globe to Brazil. The BBC also reported an incident in 2015, when two children were diagnosed with polio in Ukraine. Only half of Ukraine’s children had been vaccinated against polio, and Ukraine administered six million vaccines through an emergency out break to prevent an outbreak.
It can happen anywhere. So, although polio is currently confined to the smallest geographic area in history, the battle is far from over. Due to how aggressive polio is, the goal has to be zero cases, and we possess the vaccine to do it.
Rotary International has been fighting polio globally since 1979 and has spent, to date, over $1.9 billion doing so. Rotarians have administered over 15 billion vaccines since 2000 alone. Since 1988, 2.5 billion children have been vaccinated.
But vaccines are only part of the solution. Monitoring is crucial, and since polio usually travels through water and sewage, those systems must be checked regularly.
The World Health Organization cites 20 countries as being high risk for a resurgence of polio.
Monitoring and detection require a Herculean effort of volunteer staffing, logistics and financial resources. Just to help Nigeria move toward being polio-free, every country that borders Nigeria must be actively monitored, so a firewall exists in the regrettable event of a recurrence in Nigeria.
Rotary has entered into partnership with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative — which includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization — to continue this laborious fight. In fact, Rotary International has started a campaign to raise $50 million a year to combat polio, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged a 2-to-1 match which will raise the amount to $150 million a year. This is the first time in its 114 year history Rotary International has ever reached outside of its own organization to raise funds. And it will continue to do so.
Smallpox is the only disease to ever be completely eliminated. Polio will be the second. With the help of local communities and global organizations, Rotary International will make polio history.