Rotary’s Finest Hour

From the Rotary Club book, “A Century of Service, The Story of Rotary International” by David C. Forward, the author states, "For most of the first half of the 20th century, few single words could evoke more fear than( the dreaded disease infantile paralysis or as it is commonly known), ‘Polio’." The crippling disease chose its victims without discrimination and without warning. The origin of a nationwide polio epidemic in 1916 was thought to be New York City, the disease probably brought over from Europe. This particular malady, which would become an epidemic across this country, quickly made a name for itself by 1916 when more than 25,000 people nationally became paralyzed and 7,000 died.

With almost a directed purpose, polio seemed to seek out children, crippling babies in ghettos and in wealthy neighborhoods alike. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of polio’s victims. Again from the book mentioned above, “In an ordinary week on an ordinary street, most children would wake up normally and run outside to play, while two or three would awaken with a slight fever, unable to move their limbs and with a spreading paralysis.’ In many cases  it  would become almost impossible for the child to breathe, resulting in the need  for an iron lung to support breathing.

Nationally, Rotary responded to the horrible situation in the traditional way, by helping with the aftereffects of polio, such as providing wheelchairs, vocational training and family assistance. This response was on a club to club basis. Most Rotarians thought that they could best serve the community by addressing the symptoms of polio. But this would change in April of 1955 when the U.S Public Health Service held a ceremony for the purpose of announcing the licensing of a polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. It then became Rotary’s mission to join with the World Health Organization and UNICEF to provide the manpower and funding to immunize the public throughout the world.

By 1960, when Dr. Albert Sabin developed his oral polio vaccine there was already talk of eradicating polio throughout the world. For Rotary’s part, this would be the beginning of the “PolioPlus” program and one of the club’s finest moments.


Polio Becomes A Major Rotary Project

In 1955, The U.S. Health Service licensed Dr. Jonas Salk’s injectable polio vaccine. Shortly after, Dr. Albert Sabin successfully produced an oral vaccine. The first major field trial for the vaccine was held in the Soviet Union. The Russian  people  were apparently the world guinea pigs in regard to the large scale polio programs. It was directed that the vaccine would be administered to every person between 2 and 20, apparently with no regard as to whether the vaccine worked or not.

At this point there were two camps in the polio program hierarchy regarding the implementation of the immunization program – One group wanted to take care and go slow with the program to insure that there were no negative ramifications involved with the program. The other side saw the immunization program as just one  of  the  many  battlegrounds on which the war  on  polio  would  be fought – and they didn’t want to waste  any time.

The immunization program in Russia produced an immediate result, with 77 million Russians and 23 million people in other Eastern Soviet  Bloc  nations  immunized.  New  cases   of polio all but disappeared in  the  areas  where  the  immunizations  took  place  (in  Russia  and the Eastern Bloc countries). As the immunization program was initiated in other industrialized countries those nations also saw a sharp  drop  off  in  the  number  of  polio  cases.

This was a much- heralded and successful  program  wherever  it  was  implemented,  but there was a problem. The industrial nations had more advanced health structures set in place than the developing countries. The industrial nations implemented their immunization programs and very quickly got results,while the developing nations struggled to make a dent in the control of  polio.  The  health  officials  in  the  industrialized  nations  knew  that  the  process of involvement by any outside polio immunization organization in the developing countries would have to be evolutionary  rather  than  revolutionary.  But  they  also  were aware  that  without  complete  eradication  of  the   disease;   there   was   the opportunity   that  the  disease  could  spread  from  developing  country  to  developing country. In 1972, Dr. Robert Hingson spoke to the Oakland Rotary Club near Pittsburgh, PA  on  the subject of his new invention, the “peace gun”. Dr. Hingson said  his  new injection gun  could be loaded with multiple doses of vaccines, making the task of vaccination much faster. That was the time  for  Rotary  Clubs  in  America  and  the  nations across the world to step up to the plate, and they did. Polio had to be eradicated. The Rotary Club of Birmingham would become a major contributor to that cause.


Polio and the PolioPlus Program

After the PolioPlus Program was established on a national basis, our Birmingham Rotary Club began to become more involved with the project. Our club also took a leadership position in the effort to eradicate  the  horrible  disease.

Dr. Leslie S. Wright was contacted by national Rotary personnel involved with PolioPlus and asked if he would become the Rotary International Chairman for the eradication of polio, world-wide. Dr. Wright traveled all over the world, touching the hearts of people  regarding  the  subject  of  polio.  Rotary,  the  World Health Organization and UNICEF all worked together on  the  same  mission,  Rotary  urged  to  raise  $120,000,000.

In the Rotary publication,  Ninety  Years  of  ‘Service  Above  Self,’  Mary Alice Carmichael commented on Dr. Wright’s effort to raise money to purchase vaccine for use across the world. “His enthusiasm and skills, (plus the desire  on the part of all the organizations) to rid the world of the scourge touched the hearts and pocketbooks of people all over the world, and double the amount of money requested was raised. Our club alone raised  $220,000  under  the  direction  of  our  PolioPlus  Chairman,  Hugh  Jacks.

Unfortunately, the PolioPlus Program only worked successfully in  countries that would allow the vaccine to  be  administered.  Fortunately,  that was almost all the nations of the world. All in all, the  effort to  eradicate  polio  has been a huge success with only six countries still affected by the dreaded disease, including: Somalia, Pakistan, Nigeria, (recently Syria), Kenya and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, polio has made a rebound due to wars and political violence, in the near east, Africa, & Pakistan, so there’s more work ahead…