Rotarians celebrate World Polio Day

BUCKHANNON  The Rotary Club of Buckhannon-Upshur recently celebrated World Polio Day. World Polio Day is celebrated on October 24, in honor and memory of the birth of Jonas Salk—the researcher who developed the first polio vaccine in 1955.

For more than 35 years, Rotary clubs have been working to eradicate polio globally. Rotary is a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and through this, they have reportedly reduced polio cases by 99.9% since their initial project in 1979, vaccinating children in the Philippines. The project’s success led Rotary to make polio eradication a top priority, leading to the launch of their PolioPlus initiative. “Ending polio is the largest effort that Rotary has ever taken for many years,” according to Rotary President Kathy McMurray.

Fellow Rotarian Marty Kelley provided a presentation on Rotary’s efforts towards polio eradication. In 2016, in conjunction with getting things ready for the Almost Heaven BBQ Bash, Kelley wanted to get the word out about Rotary’s contribution to polio eradication. Kelley met with the late Dr. Lillian Halverson, who ran the dietetic program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, following her career as a professor of nutrition and dietetics. Dr. Halverson suffered from polio and the effects of it were very much manifested in her daily life, according to Kelley. From her personal research and time with Dr. Halverson, Kelley created a movie that was played continuously during the Almost Heaven BBQ Bash, with the help from a WVWC student. Kelley noted that it was wonderful to hear firsthand knowledge about the polio virus.

Polio is more prevalent in other countries where vaccinations aren’t readily available, nor required like they are in the United States. Kelley mentioned that although polio existed in the 1800s, with the first documented case in 1789, there was not much anyone could do about it, and it wasn’t as widespread at the time, so there wasn’t that panic that would come later on. Polio also almost exclusively affected children, although some adults did contract it.

In 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio at the age of 39—20 years before Salk’s discovery. In 1937, Roosevelt set up a national foundation for infantile paralysis. At one time, they had 3,200 clubs, according to Kelley. This foundation did not receive federal funding and therefore had to create ways to fundraise. Entertainer Eddie Cantor, with the help of other big Hollywood stars, created large fundraising events to help with the efforts to eradicate polio. The research exploded following these major fundraising events, and American ingenuity went to work, Kelley noted.

Over the span of 1887-1916 there were documented epidemics in Stockholm, Vermont, and New York. The epidemic in New York killed 6,000 and left 27,000 maimed. By 1948, American Jonas Salk found the breakthrough.

By 1954, mass immunizations began, with 1.8 million children receiving the vaccination via injection. In 1962—14 years later—Dr. Albert B. Sabin was successful with a live oral poliovirus vaccine, which Kelley explained simplified the process of distributing the vaccine. “The outcome from polio may have been totally different had the oral vaccine not been successful,” she emphasized. Kelley also noted that Dr. Salk had opportunity and declined to patent his creation, as he expressed that “he felt it belonged to all of humanity.”

In 1994, the Americas were finally declared free from polio. This took 46 years from Salk’s initial breakthrough. Rotary’s total contribution around 1994 exceeded $500 million, with only six countries having active polio cases. By 2000, 550 million had received the oral polio vaccine. In 2003, The Rotary Foundation raised $119 million in just 12 months for PolioPlus.

By 2006, Polio was eradicated in all but four countries including: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria. However, over the course of 7 years, India and Nigeria became polio free, leaving Afghanistan and Pakistan as the only countries infected with active polio. According to Kelley and other research, there are several reasons that Afghanistan and Pakistan have yet to eradicate the vicious virus. The biggest issues come from lack of communication and constant political instability. Several parts of these countries are also poverty stricken and lack basic access to clean water and basic hygiene necessities, according to Kelley.

As of October 2021, 2.2 billion children have been immunized from polio. Rotary members have contributed more than 2.1 billion dollars towards this effort. As of July, of this year, there were only two new reported cases of polio—one in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan. In Pakistan, there are approximately 7-8 million babies born each year, demanding continual vaccination efforts. For the year 2020, there were 959 cases, worldwide.

It is possible that the polio virus could return to unvaccinated children via environmental, nutritional, education and political issues.

Kelley noted that her fellow Rotarians should feel the pride in their hearts for their contribution towards the eradication of the polio virus.


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