Polio at one time was a word that could strike terror in the hearts of North Americans. Parents feared their little children being victimized by this scourge - and with good reason. At the height of the polio epidemics in 1952, over 3,000 people died in the U.S.
I vividly remember as a child seeing children and adults with metal braces on their legs, the direct result of their brush with the virus.Polio is a virus that in North America reared its ugly head most often in the summer and fall each year. It's a highly contagious disease that can result in paralysis, difficulty breathing and, as I've already said, death.
For those whose breathing was affected, the antidote was often an iron lung - essentially a huge metal beast that breathed for the patient. Imagine how frightening it must have been for parents to place their little children in one.
Since I've been an adult, I've had three good friends who have all had polio. And each has a lasting legacy of the disease. All of them, to one degree or another, have had residual muscle problems. The last case of polio occurred in North America in 1979. The successful end to this devastating disease can be attributed to one main factor - the polio vaccine. Although other elements of our lifestyle in the latter part of the 20th century, such as improved hygiene standards, helped to staunch polio, nothing was as effective as the vaccine.
When you ask people who are living their lives in the aftermath of polio whether they would have liked to have been immunized against the disease, you rarely get a negative answer. In four countries in the world, polio is still a virulent disease. In Nigeria, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan there are children and adults dying of this oh-so-preventable disease. In those countries where hygiene is still a distant dream, polio continues to spread through infected person's stools.
Fortunately there's a group worldwide that has made it their mandate to conquer this vile disease - Rotary International. In those four countries there are annual National Immunization Days where Rotarians from all walks of life come out to immunize children. For these children, once is never enough. Their immune systems are so weakened by chronic diarrhea, malnutrition and contaminated drinking water that some children are immunized up to seven times to make sure the vaccination takes.
Because of their scrupulous attention to detail and the success Rotary has had in shutting down polio in many countries, they've won the support of such important groups as the World Health Organization. Just over a year ago the Bill Gates Foundation gave $100 million to Rotary to combat polio with the proviso that Rotary match the donation. The Gates Foundation is so pleased with the efforts of the Rotarians in both their on-the-ground and fundraising efforts that in January the donation was upped by another $155 million. For those of us lucky enough to have won life's lottery just through birth, it's wonderful to know we can make a difference in another child's life. Rotary's hope is that no child or adult will ever have to face polio again. If you share that hope, contact a local Rotarian for more information. There can never be too much help.