Club History Moment: End Polio Now

Wednesday, April 7, 2021 By: Monica M Smith
In honor of World Health Day on April 7, Monica Smith shares about the history of Rotary International's primary international service project End Polio Now, formerly PolioPlus. 

Thank you for the opportunity to present another History Moment. In honor of World Health Day [today, April 7], I would like to briefly talk about the history of Rotary International's primary international service project End Polio Now, formerly PolioPlus. 
Another reason to give this talk today is because President Nancy just reminded us via email that at least 50% of the membership is required to donate $25 minimum to The Rotary International Foundation’s (TRIF) Annual Fund in order to qualify for District Designated Funds.  In other words, if we meet the minimum requirement, part of our donations come back to our DC club to help fund our International Service Committee grants as well as support local and international humanitarian projects such as End Polio Now. 
I also thought this was timely because I've heard from many people, especially those born in the 1930s and 40s, who recall parallels between today's Coronavirus pandemic and Polio. Polio was once one of the most feared diseases in the U.S. In the early 1950s, before polio vaccines were available, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year in the U.S. Thanks to a successful vaccination program, the United States has been polio-free since 1979. 
That same year, Rotary International began its fight against polio, starting with a multi-year project to immunize 6 million children in the Philippines. Courtesy of RI's timeline highlighting our polio eradication efforts, here are a few key historical milestones over almost 130 years: 
  • 1894: The first major documented polio outbreak in the United States occurred in Vermont. 
  • 1905: Swedish physician Ivar Wickman suggested that polio is a contagious disease that can spread from person to person, and also recognized that polio could be present in people who show no symptoms. [Sound familiar?] 
  • 1908: 2 physicians in Vienna, Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper, discovered that polio is caused by a virus. 
  • 1916: A major polio outbreak in New York City kills more than 2,000 people. Across the United States, polio takes the lives of about 6,000 people, and paralyzes thousands more. [Remember, this was just before the Spanish Flu pandemic.] 
  • 1929: Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw Jr. invented an artificial respirator for patients suffering from paralytic polio—the iron lung. 
  • 1955: The first big breakthrough: A vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk was declared “safe and effective.” 
  • 1960: The U.S. government licensed the oral polio vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin.  
  • 1979: Rotary International begins its fight against polio in the Philippines.
  • 1985: Rotary International launched PolioPlus, the first and largest internationally coordinated private-sector support of a public health initiative. 
  • 1988: The World Health Organization joined Rotary International to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.  
  • 1994: The International Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication announced that polio has been eliminated from the Americas. 
  • 1995: [If you think mass immunizations don’t work, well…] Health workers and volunteers immunized 165 million children in China and India in 1 week.  
  • 2000: A record 550 million children – almost 10% of the world's population – received the oral polio vaccine. The Western Pacific region, spanning from Australia to China, was declared polio-free. 
  • 2004: In Africa, synchronized National Immunization Days in 23 countries targeted 80 million children, the largest coordinated polio immunization effort on the continent. 
  • 2006: The number of polio-endemic countries dropped to 4 - Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Pakistan. 
  • 2009: In January, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $355 million and issued Rotary a challenge grant of $200 million.  
  • 2011: Rotary welcomed celebrities and other major public figures into a new public awareness campaign and ambassador program called "This Close" to ending polio. Program ambassadors included Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and environmentalist Dr. Jane Goodall. Rotary's funding for polio eradication exceeded $1 billion. 
  • 2014: India goes 3 full years without a new case caused by the wild poliovirus, and the World Health Organization certifies the South-East Asia region polio-free. Polio cases are down over 99% since 1988. 
  • 2019: Nigeria goes 3 full years without a new case caused by the wild poliovirus. 
  • 2020: The World Health Organization certifies the African region wild polio-free. 
Thanks to all Rotarians, including members of the Rotary Club of Washington, DC and others attending today's meeting, who have actively supported these efforts since 1979. In honor of all the scientists and health care workers around the world, let's continue to support Rotary International's health initiatives including its ongoing commitment to ending Polio in the world. Perhaps we can be inspired by that successful mission to also become individually and collectively more engaged in promoting education about this latest global pandemic and the importance of vaccinations now and in the future.