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updated: 3/29/2012 1:30 PM

Why the battle against polio isn't over

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If you were born in the United States after 1979 and have lived here since, you've grown up in a polio-free country.

Don't take it for granted.

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Timelines note the highly contagious virus predates recorded history. More than 3,000 years ago in Egypt, cryptic evidence showed signs the disease always was a far greater crippler than a killer.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio at age 39, the virus drew even more attention and soon medical philanthropy took flight via his March of Dimes campaign.

In my childhood home, I lived with it, too. My mother caught a mild case of polio when she was pregnant with my younger brother, Jim. I remember waving to her as she peered from the window of the train she'd boarded in Muncie, Ind., headed to Cleveland Clinic for a checkup.

In the early 1950s, the U.S. reported its most cases ever when the epidemic hit nearly 60,000 individuals.

Folks were frightened. No one knew the cause of the transmission of the disease. Families avoided swimming pools, water fountains and other public places.

What health professionals did know, however, is that polio attacks the nervous system, quickly destroying nerve cells that activate muscles, causing irreversible paralysis within hours. Paralysis caused immobilization of breathing muscles.

I recall collecting dimes for coin saver booklets to give to the March of Dimes, the charity that advanced development of Jonas Salk's injected vaccine as well Albert Sabin's live oral vaccine (OPV).

Back then, my father's construction business built a camp designed for children who had been crippled by polio -- kids about my age who wore leg braces or were bound to wheelchairs.

Today, researchers have determined the virus is spread from stool to mouth, so it's not so surprising that the infection can be transmitted to young children not yet vaccinated.

Though no cure for polio exists, when the series of safe and preventive vaccines is administered to children before age 5, they can be protected for life.

Back in the mid-1950s, all the youth in my elementary school lined up for polio shots, a scenario repeated throughout the nation.

Then after that mass immunization campaign promoted by the March of Dines, cases of polio were reduced to only about 5,600 in the U.S. by 1957.

Those polio vaccines developed are credited with reducing the global number of polio cases per year from many hundreds of thousands as recently as 1988 to around 1,000.

I joined the Rotary Club of Naperville in 1996. That's when I became acquainted with Rotary International's PolioPlus, a campaign started in 1985 to step up vaccination efforts worldwide.

In 1988, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution to eradicate polio and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and the U.S. Center for Disease Control joined forces in the private-public partnership.

Sadly, however, with our mobile society, importation of polio viruses is unavoidable until every single case of polio is erased from the earth.

To bring this story home, on Feb. 14, Nicki Scott, a past-president of the Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise, left on a two-week trip to India to volunteer in one of the country's National Immunization Days and to attend the Polio Summit 2012.

Every NID is a time when as many as 172 million children are vaccinated with OPV, advancing a culture of disease prevention rather than treatment.

On Jan. 13, 2012, India surpassed a 13-month period without detecting a single new case of the poliovirus. Early in February, India was removed from the list of polio endemic countries. What had been known as P.A.I.N. -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria -- had been reduced to only three countries worldwide with cases of polio.

"As I was preparing to leave," Nicki said, "I had folks ask, 'If India is polio-free, why do you still need to go inoculate the children?'"

She explained that just as in the polio-free United States, children throughout the world must continue to be immunized, the only way to eradicate the crippling disease.

Nicki came home with hundreds of stunning photos of India -- beautiful children, narrow streets, horse carts, bicycles, open sewers, tent shelters and the Taj Mahal -- including some of her administering drops of the vaccine into wide open mouths of willing youngsters.

"We can't celebrate just yet," she said. "Advocacy, awareness and the truth about polio -- where we are, the multiple vaccines it takes for every child still at risk -- must be told. Until polio is eradicated completely, a lone case can threaten the entire world."

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