We were pleased to welcome Past District Governor, Sanford-Springvale Rotarian, and District Polio Plus chair Lawrence Furbish to our meeting on World Polio Day. Lawrence gave us a quick history of this ancient disease and Rotary’s role in taking on the challenge to eradicate it from the world.
Hippocrates, a Greek physician often called the father of Western medicine, described a disease that people got in the warmer months. Ancient tablets from Egypt and India make reference to a disease that was most likely poliomyelitis. In the US, there was an epidemic occurrence of polio starting in 1905 and peaking in 1910 and 1916. Throughout the first half of the last century, polio remained a threat in the US, striking the poor and wealthy alike. A notable example is Franklin D. Roosevelt who contracted the disease at his summer home on Campobello Island in 1921.
The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was founded in the 1938 by a friend of FDR with the aim of combatting polio. This organization was renamed March of Dimes and now focuses on preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.
Cases of polio in the US grew throughout the 1940s, peaking in 1952.  Two key virologists were working on vaccines. Jonas Salk’s approach was with dead virus while other researchers worked with live virus. Salk’s injected vaccine became available in 1954 when one million kids were vaccinated in a trial that proved it was effective. The Albert Sabin oral vaccine was released in 1961 as the incidences of polio were declining rapidly in the US. The oral vaccine was and is much less expensive than the injected vaccine, but in a small number of cases it can cause polio (vaccine derived polio vs wild polio virus). While other virologists in other countries were also working on an oral vaccine, the Sabin strain was determined to be most effective and was adopted for worldwide distribution.
In the 1970s, Rotary 3H Grants, the predecessor to Global Grants, were started to provide funding for projects greater than a single club could afford. It was through a 3H Grant that the polio eradication effort in the Philippines was funded. In 1985, Rotary took on the fight against polio as a “corporate project”. Rotary approached the World Health Organization (WHO) to form a partnership and were initially rebuffed since Rotary is not a health organization. However, once Rotary demonstrated the level of funding that could be made available, the partnership was launched with WHO, the CDC and UNICEF. In 2013, the Gates Foundation joined the partnership.
The efforts of this partnership have driven the number of polio cases down from about 350,000 in 1988 to 12 so far in 2017. Only two countries have reported cases in 2017, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most vaccinating is done by local health care workers – polio workers whom our donations help pay for. Rotarians administer a small number of vaccinations, but our key role is to continue to raise awareness and advocate for support to get the job done.