Rotary hopes to educate about immunizations, raise funds to end polio

Dr. William Foege will speak  on Vashon on Thursday. - File Photo
Dr. William Foege will speak on Vashon on Thursday.
— image credit: File Photo

Vashon’s Rotary Club will focus on disease prevention when it hosts two community events — one, a community symposium intended to answer questions about vaccines and raise immunization rates locally and the other, a fundraiser to help eradicate polio worldwide.

In the first of the events, which will take place on Thursday, June 2, Rotary will host a vaccination symposium with Dr. Gary Koch of the Vashon Health Center; Celina Yarkin, a farmer, mother and immunization advocate, and Dr. William Foege, an Islander and the luminary of the evening. Foege, an expert in international health issues and immunizations, is credited with devising the strategy to eradicate smallpox. He was the director of the Centers for Disease Control from 1977 to 1983 and is currently a senior fellow with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Squeezing this talk in between work-related travels, Foege said he agreed to participate on the panel because he sees immunization as vitally important.

“It is the foundation stone for public health,” he said.

With antibiotics, bacteria become resistant, he noted, and the medications lose their effectiveness. That has not been the case so far with vaccines.

 “They turn out to be long-term tools. … often for life,” he said. “With their cost-benefit ratio, they are the best investment in public health.”

Foege also noted that science is quickly developing new immunization tools, and soon there will be vaccines for additional diseases. Aware of many Islanders’ concerns about the safety of immunizations, he stressed there is nothing inherently wrong with combining vaccines. But the challenge with more vaccines, he said, is in creating different ways to administer them — ways that are effective and efficient and cause as little trauma to the child as possible. 

When Rotary members began organizing the polio events on the Island, there was a great deal of focus on local vaccine issues, including the possibility of a pertussis outbreak because of the number of Islanders, including school-age children, who are not vaccinated against the disease. It made sense to offer information that addressed those issues as well, said Craig Hanson, a Rotarian who is coordinating both events.

Acknowledging that immunization is a thorny subject for some, organizers encourage all people with questions to attend.

“If they want to talk about the science, if they want to understand the science, they should come,” said Bart Queary, president of Vashon Rotary. 

In the second of the events, which will take place the following Friday through Sunday, the club will bring an iron lung to downtown Vashon as part of Rotary International’s End Polio Now campaign. Like last year, when the club held a similar fundraiser for the effort, Rotarians will be outside Thriftway with the iron lung, talking to people about polio and raising money to support the organization’s campaign to eradicate the crippling disease.

“Last year, between iron lung donations and a shout out to club and former club members, we raised almost $7,000,” Hanson said. “We hope to do the same this year.”

The international campaign, which has been going on for nearly two years, will end in June. If Rotary — with its 1.2 million members worldwide and some 12,000 clubs — raises $200 million, the Gates Foundation will match the funds with $355 million. Through March of this year, Hanson noted, $134 million has been raised, and Vashon Rotary is pitching in again.

“We really want to do what we can as a small club on a small island to help reach the goal,” Hanson said.

Rotary International has been involved with polio eradication efforts for more than 20 years, according to Queary, and the efforts of Rotary and many other partners in international health have paid off.

“Everybody is sure within a very few years, there will be no polio left in the world,” he said.

In 1988, Hanson said, polio was endemic in 125 countries. Two billion children have been vaccinated since that time, and now polio is endemic in only four countries, though other cases develop in additional countries.

Vaccination efforts have resulted in a more than 99 percent reduction in the number of people afflicted with the virus, which can cause paralysis and death and was considered one of the most feared childhood illnesses in much of the 20th century.

Foege, too, said he is hopeful that there will be no more polio within just a few years. The impediments to reaching that goal are not about science, he noted, but about conflict. Leading his list of places that might make achieving the goal particularly difficult are Congo, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In all countries, politicians must be fully involved, he noted, and the groups engaged in conflict must stop fighting for vaccination efforts to take place. 

“We know how to do this,” he said, “but we don’t know how to make peace.”


The vaccination symposium will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 2, at the McMurray Middle School multipurpose room. 

People who wish to see the iron lung or contribute to Rotary’s efforts, can do so between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Friday, June 3, and Sunday, June 5, outside Thriftway. Or send a check to Vashon Island Rotary Foundation, P.O. Box 2392, Vashon, WA  98070. Donations are tax deductible. 



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