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By John Brodey
Lessons of the Past
Almost everyone reading this remembers getting a Polio shot/oral dose during their childhood. Actually, Polio has been around longer than we have. The first cases appeared in 1894, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the virus became a widespread threat to children everywhere. By the 40’s, it was a scourge and parents would routinely send their children away if cases started to appear in a local school. If you’ve ever seen an iron lung, it brings the horror of the disease to life. Seeing pictures of children encased in a metal box with just their heads sticking out as the machine does the work of a paralyzed diaphragm are shocking. For others, the reality was a life of being confined to a wheelchair or walking with braces. In 1952 alone, 60,000 children contracted polio here. Finding a cure had been the work of virologists like John Enders who helped pioneer treatment. In the doing so, an emerging vaccine was tested on 10,000 children in the late 40’s. It proved ineffective and a small number of children died, but such was the desperation to find a cure that the public saw no other option. We all know that by 1954 Jonas Salk unveiled the vaccine we know to today.
Ironically, after 70 years, Polio has yet to be totally eradicated. This is how difficult a battle it is and yet most people would be surprised that it still exists anywhere. An important update was recently presented to our club by Bob Rogers who is the Polio + subcommittee chair for Rotary in northern California. The number of countries still experiencing new cases has dropped significantly as have the frequencies. For 2021, it was announced by WHO that only two cases have been recorded this year; one each in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is still significant because with viruses, any toe hold can ramp up infection rates again.
That fact explains why Rotary International continues to make Polio its number one focus. The job isn’t finished until the infection rate is zero. Obstacles still exist due to the myriad of problems facing third world countries; religious extremism, war, poverty and remote populations. Ignorance and fear are roadblocks and so it was big news when the Taliban recently announced to formally allow the inoculating to continue, and they agreed to allowing women to administer the oral vaccine. So, it may seem overly dramatic to still devote millions of dollars to eliminating just two cases as the virus comes close to dying out but the length of time that has been spent getting to this point totally justifies finishing the work. It’s sad to note that this lesson from the past seems to have been lost on our species. Two years into the COVID pandemic there remain well developed countries that have significant unvaccinated populations. Thinking we know more than we really do is a fatal flaw. Our faith in the science that brought us flu, smallpox, polio, shingles, pneumonia vaccines, seems to have evaporated. Let’s hope the new year brings good news.


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