The centuries-old scourge of polio is on the brink of ending, thanks to a lifesaving vaccine and the efforts of thousands of people throughout the world.
Last month, Nicki Scott, former president of the Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise and future governor for Rotary District 6450, traveled to New Delhi, India, to participate in one of the country's National Immunization Days. Scott joined 2½ million other volunteers trying to immunize all children younger than 5 with the polio vaccine.
The push was done through a long-standing cooperative relationship among Rotary International, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, and the government of India to help rid the world of the dreaded disease.
The massive undertaking took place over three days. On day one, well-publicized booths were set up throughout the country, including at bus stations and train stations. Parents were asked to bring their children so they could be immunized.
After the children were given the oral vaccine, the small finger on their left hand was marked with indelible ink to keep track of children who received the vaccine.
On days two and three, volunteers knocked on every door throughout the country -- in poor and wealthy areas alike. Any child who had not yet received the vaccine was immunized at home. Volunteers wrote numbers on the doors of each home, indicating how many young children lived there and how many had been immunized. Follow-up visits ensured no child was missed.
By the end of the third day, it was documented that 172 million children had been immunized with the polio vaccine.
Similar National Immunization Days have taken place annually throughout the world since 1985 when Rotary International launched Polio Plus, the first and largest internationally coordinated health initiative. As a result:
• The last indigenous case of polio in the Americas was reported in 1991.
• The Western Hemisphere was declared polio free in 1994.
• The number of polio-endemic countries dropped to four in 2006 (Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan).
• India has been free from new cases of polio for one year.
• India was removed last month from list of polio-endemic countries.
Why is the initiative important?
Many Americans younger than 60 are unaware of polio and its impact. But many older individuals remember what life was like before Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine in 1954.
The constant fear of a polio outbreak was in the hearts of parents everywhere until the 1950s. The painful, crippling, and sometimes deadly disease hit without warning, usually striking children. The cause was unknown. The source of the disease was unknown. There was no cure -- only rehabilitation, braces and iron lungs.
Each summer brought a polio epidemic and new fears of public pools, lakes, beaches, drinking fountains, movie theaters, crowds and even flies. Since they didn't know how the illness was spread, parents made sure their children took naps every afternoon, avoided groups and washed their hands frequently.
The worst polio epidemic in the United States occurred in 1952, with 57,628 cases being reported. During that outbreak, 3,145 people died and 21,269 suffered some level of paralysis. Worldwide, polio paralyzed or killed more than 500,000 people each year during that decade.
It was in this environment that Salk developed the vaccine. In April of 1954, the vaccine was tested on 1.8 million schoolchildren throughout the country in a historic double-blind field trial. A year later, on April 12, 1955, it was announced the vaccine was a success.
Within four months, more than 4 million vaccinations had been given and the rate of polio began to drop dramatically.
Rotary's leadership, beginning in 1985, inspired the World Health Assembly to pass a resolution to eradicate polio, which paved the way for the formation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988.
Rotary's financial contributions to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative will reach nearly $1.2 billion by the time the world is certified polio-free. Thousands of Rotarians around the world have volunteered during National Immunization Days to immunize children.
"Rotary has led the private sector in the global effort to rid the world of this crippling disease," Nicki Scott said. "We have Rotarians in over 200 countries throughout the world. Due to our local relationships and nonpolitical or religious affiliation, we can open doors that no one else can.
"Rotary transcends those aspects of society that often separate us -- even war -- by focusing on the common cause of humanity."
Scott said she attended a Polio Summit following the National Immunization and the head of the CDC told the crowd, "As long as people, products and microbes can move across continents in a matter of hours, then a polio threat anywhere is a polio threat everywhere."
"We're 99 percent of the way to eradicating polio," Scott said. "Until we finish it, we can't stop."
For more information about Polio Plus and how you can help eradicate this crippling disease, visit rotary.org and click on the "End Polio Now" button.