Rotary’s efforts to eradicate polio prove fruitful on Vashon

By Craig Hanson

For The Beachcomber

Twenty-five years ago, Rotary International began the ambitious PolioPlus program, with a goal to eradicate polio from the world.

In 1985, there were 350,000 cases of polio a year reported. Since that time, through Rotary’s efforts and that of its partner organizations, more than two billion children have been immunized, and last year there were just under 1,600 cases reported, a 99.9 percent reduction.

PolioPlus helps Rotary fund operational costs such as transportation, vaccine delivery, social mobilization, training of health workers and support surveillance activities. Polio now exists in just five remote areas of Africa, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued a challenge grant to Rotary: If Rotary can raise $200 million worldwide by June of 2011, the Gates Foundation will match that with an additional $355 million.

Rotary clubs all over the world have been asked to help meet that target, and to date, more than half — $117 million — has been raised.

The Vashon Island Rotary Club wanted to do its part to help fulfill the promise of a polio-free world and held a fundraiser April 30 to May 1, replete with an iron lung on display at Vashon Thriftway. Vashon Rotary’s theme is, “We live on an island, we are part of the world.”

Polio is a crippling and sometimes fatal disease that still strikes children mainly under the age of 5. Because there is no cure for polio, the best protection is prevention. For as little as 60 cents worth of vaccine, a child can be protected for life.

Polio can cause paralysis within hours, and that paralysis is almost always irreversible. In the most severe cases, polio attacks the motor neurons of the brainstem, causing breathing difficulty or even death. Historically, polio has been the world’s greatest cause of disability.

What touched us the most during our recent fundraiser on the Island were the stories that Islanders related to us about their own personal connection to this insidious disease.

One woman said that her mother spent 37 years in an iron lung!

Another woman said her father went swimming in a polluted section of Puget Sound when he was a young man and within a week was paralyzed from the neck down, spending months in an iron lung and the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

A man told us that he had contracted polio when he was just 4 years old and went to the polio treatment center in Warm Springs, Georgia, that was founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Many people told us that they had a relative or neighbor who had had polio or been in an iron lung.

And so many children were fascinated by the iron lung, because they had never seen or even heard of one — and will never have to be in one!

That was maybe the best thing of all.

— Craig Hanson is the Vashon Island Rotary Club’s PolioPlus Fundraiser chair and vice-president of the Vashon Island Rotary Foundation.

While the iron lung has gone back to Seattle, people who are still interested in helping Rotary in this final effort to eradicate this deadly disease from the planet can send in a check to the Vashon Island Rotary Foundation at P.O. Box 2392, Vashon, WA, 98070, and note “PolioPlus” on the memo line. The Rotary foundation is a nonprofit, and donations are tax deductible. People can also go to www.polioplus.org to donate.

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