Opinion

Local Rotarians strive to play a part in eradicating polio

I recently joined the Vashon Island Rotary, and I find their motto, “We live on an island. We are part of the world,” both inspiring and relevant. And its relevance has come into dramatic focus for me around the issue of polio.

Vashon Rotary celebrated Global Polio Day on Oct. 24. After more than two decades of hard work, Rotary and its partners are on the brink of eradicating polio. A major milestone has been reached with India, which closed a whole year without a new case of polio.

When Rotary launched Polioplus in 1985, many thought India, where polio crippled an estimated 150,000 children annually, would be the last place on Earth to stop transmission of this preventable disease, which renders its victims outcasts. Since then, Rotary International, the Rotary Foundation and Rotary clubs worldwide — joined by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — have poured untold resources into the eradication of polio. It is an amazing story of creativity and dedication. Mother Teresa wrote in 1992, “Dear Rotarians: May God bless you for saving our children from polio.”

In India, the Muslim community accounts for a large proportion of the nation’s polio cases. In 2003 Rotary established partnerships with key Muslim institutions to reach congregations through strategies such as immunizing children at religious festivals and making announcements and appeals in mosques. To increase immunization rates in remote, high-risk areas, workers constructed shelters where families can rest overnight during journeys to immunization booths.

Globally, through the efforts and cooperation of more than 200 countries and 20 million volunteers, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized. Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Gates Foundation, has said that the most serious threat facing the effort to eradicate polio is the challenge presented by Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan — countries where political tumult has made immunization efforts difficult. The good news is that India has shown other polio-endemic countries what is possible with commitment and perseverance.

When John Hewko, the CEO of Rotary International and the Rotary Foundation, was asked what one thing he would do to hasten the end of polio, he said that Rotary, if it could, “would remove all the barriers to reaching children with the polio vaccine — be it the successful brokering of Days of Tranquility in areas of armed conflict or persuading the governments of the world to exhibit the political will and provide the funding needed to finish the job.”

At our local level, an exchange student Vashon Rotary sponsors, Grant Lyons, is trying to help a young girl he met in Central America who has been crippled by polio. Grant spent the summer in Panama with Vashon’s Amigos de las Americas program and is now attending high school in Ecuador as a Rotary ambassador. While he was in Panama, he met Argelis and was shocked to learn that the damage to her legs had been caused by polio. Growing up in the U.S., he has never seen the effects of the disease. As she continues to grow, her legs will not be able to support her body weight unless she is able to have surgery to facilitate braces. Without surgery, she will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Because her family can’t pay the medical and travel costs, Grant has taken up the challenge to raise the funds. I know without a doubt that Vashon Rotary will play a part in Grant meeting his challenge.

No one thought India would be removed from the list of polio endemic countries, and it has. Today’s news — with stories of violence, dictators, even the divisiveness we are experiencing in the current election period — is discouraging. The story of polio eradication and Grant’s dedication to Argelis renews my faith in the goodness of the human spirit and the future which will be created by our youth. The miracle of what can be achieved when people come together in cooperation and dedication to solve a problem is encouraging. We do it on our Island, and we are doing it globally.

 

— Carmelita Logerwell is a tax manager on Vashon.

 

 

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