INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - Eliminate polio in India? Many infectious disease experts said it couldn't be done. "The country is too populous. Too much poverty," they said.
In January of 2012 India was declared polio free. Today, polio is found in only three countries: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the number of new cases in each of these countries was dramatically reduced in the past year.
In 1985, Rotary International inspired the World Health Assembly to declare "war on polio." RI immediately began to fund the campaign and to date has raised more than $1 billion to eliminate the disease. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation soon joined our efforts with contributions of well more than $1 billion. The World health Organization, UNICEF and the Center for Communicable Diseases has also joined this effort.
Rotary District 5190 consists of 58 clubs covering nearly all of Nevada and northeast California. Each year, every Rotary Club in District 5190 is requested to raise $2,000 for the "Polio Plus" campaign. The amount raised in the district has been just less than $100,000 for many years running. Our Rotary clubs of Tahoe Incline and Incline village are participants in this fundraising.
In 1985, there were three types of polio virus. Now the Type II virus no longer exists. This clearly is the most ambitious project ever undertaken by RI.
The polio virus can cause death, but often it destroys the spinal nerves to the muscles which then contract and atrophy. The muscle contractures pull the joints into tight, nonfunctional positions, causing crippling and often the inability to walk upright.
In a recent survey of the albinos at the Mugeza School For Handicapped Children in Bukoba, Tanzania, a 12-year-old girl was seen to be crawling through the mud. She was highly intelligent and knew the full name of every albino child. Her joints were contracted and she could not stand. The child had contracted polio about a decade ago and was now forced to live in this human misery as what is commonly referred to as a "crawler." Her muscles could not be restored, but the joint contractures were surgically released and she now walks upright with braces and crutches. This child's life was salvaged by the surgery, but the goal is to eliminate this type of handicap from the world.
Polio is now contained, but we must completely eliminate it, and it needs to happen now. If the virus breaks out of the containment, it could quickly expand to millions of cases per year. Smallpox was the first major infectious disease to be eliminated; polio can be the second.
How much longer will it take to eliminate polio? Our own Lacy J. Dalton said it best in her song - we are "This Close."
- Wend Schaefer, M.D., is a past president of the Rotary Club of Tahoe Incline.