Oak Hill Rotary works to raise awareness of polio

October 21, 2011  

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Accra East Rotarians work with Northwest Austin Rotarian Gail Buckley setting up for immunizations in front of local community library in Ghana. – submitted

By Tony Tucci

The Rotary Club of Austin-Oak Hill will sponsor a booth at the walking trail of the Arbor Hills Shopping Center Saturday to raise public awareness of polio, a once-dreaded disease that has been eradicated in the U.S. and has been fought by Rotary International in foreign countries for decades.

“We want people to know that Rotary International has fought polio throughout the world and that there are only four countries left where it remains a problem,” said Brenda Osbon, a coordinator of the Oak Hill event. She said the four countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria — have been the hardest to get into.

Those who grew up in the 1950s in this country remember the scare of poliomyelitis. Mothers cautioned their children to take afternoon naps and stay away from local swimming holes. If polio didn’t kill you, it could put you in braces or a wheelchair or, even scarier, an iron lung.

Then came Jonas Salk and the Salk vaccine. Children lined up for blocks to get their shots. By 1957, the number of polio cases in the U.S. had dropped from nearly 58,000 cases to just 5,600 cases. Albert Sabin added an oral polio vaccine to the arsenal, and by 1961 only 161 cases of polio were recorded.

Georgetown Rotarian Gene Davenport giving polio drops to a child in Ghana. -submitted

Polio was down, but it was not out of the picture. It continued to take its toll in countries outside of the U.S.

“We haven’t seen polio in the U.S. for decades,” said Tim Buckley, a member of the Northwest Austin Rotary Club who has been active in the fight against polio. “In the 1970s, the Rotary Club started immunizing kids in the Philippines.” he said. The program was a success.

A study showed it would cost $120 million “to immunize every child in the world,” said Buckley, and in 1985 Rotary International decided to take the project on. “In less than three years, we raised more than two times that amount — $285 million,” said Buckley. The estimate proved to be far short of the need, however. In the past 26 years, Rotary members have raised more than $1 billion. In addition, governments worldwide have contributed more than $8 billion.

Working with UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control, Rotary hoped to eradicate polio by its 100th anniversary in 2005. “We didn’t do it,” Buckley said, but there are only four countries left where polio remains endemic.

Buckley has been on two National Immunization Days, when volunteers visit countries around the globe and immunize children. While the program has been successful, reducing polio cases by 99 percent, many countries remain at risk. Rotary now is working to raise $200 million to match a $355 million challenge grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The public awareness program in Oak Hill will be duplicated around the globe as Rotary observes World Polio Day and the birthday of Dr. Jonas Salk in October. More information can be obtained at Rotary’s website, rotary.org/polioplus. Persons can add their photo to the “This Close” public awareness campaign.


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