End Polio Now

Giving baby polio drops

Many Rotarians today are too young to know anything about polio except for its name. It was a dreaded disease that, overnight, could sicken, partially or completely paralyze and/or kill a person. The vast majority of its victims were children and youth. During “polio season” when the outbreaks would occur, usually in the warm months, parents would no longer allow their children to go to the movies, go swimming, go to town, or get into crowds until the horrible contagion seemed to disappear for a season.

The effect of the paralysis was greatly compounded by the psychological damage done when a victim survived only to realize he or she would never walk, run, or play again as they had, or be able to do many things with their friends as they could do just days or weeks before. When the paralysis affected the chest muscles and breathing, that person’s world was suddenly limited to an “iron lung” into which they were placed to breathe for them. The “iron lung” was a long, casket-like apparatus where only the person’s head could be seen. It wheezed and squeezed loudly, creating each breath that the person was no longer able to make. During “polio season” photographs in the newspapers would show row after row of victims lying in the iron lung that kept them alive in the wards of the polio wing of a hospital or the Crippled Children’s Clinic, like the first photo in the gallery below. It was feared like no other disease in those days.

In the middle 1950’s miracles happened. Two research scientists, Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin, independently of each other, developed immunizations to prevent this dreaded disease. Salk’s vaccine, an injection, was released for use in the United States in June 1955. Sabin’s oral polio vaccine was approved in 1960 for use in the U.S. and it became the main defense against polio throughout the world. Later, when Dr. Sabin was visiting Carlos Consejo, then Mexico’s Minister of Health and later President of Rotary International, he mentioned that polio could be eradicated, that the ways and means, the vaccine and the trained personnel, were available, but they did not have the supportive manpower. Sabin said to Consejo, “Perhaps Rotary could provide this manpower.” thus was born the idea of PolioPlus.

The Rotary Club of Birmingham’s Dr. Leslie S Wright was contacted to see if he would become the Rotary International Chairman for the eradication of polio, world-wide. Rotary International asked Dr. Wright to raise $120,000,000 for this program. He placed a chairman at every level of Rotary working towards the goal of raising funds to purchase the vaccine, contributing to the success of the campaign. His enthusiasm and skill, plus the desire of all to be rid of this scourge, touched the hearts and pocketbooks of people all over the world. Les traveled the world promoting PolioPlus, and exceeded all expectations by raising double the amount of the goal, an incredible $240,000,000. For his outstanding record of success, Dr. Leslie S. Wright received the Citation for Meritorious Services from the Rotary International Foundation, the highest award in Rotary.

The ultimate goal of PolioPlus is the total eradication of the disease. Money raised by PolioPlus has been able to purchase the vaccine needed, and now Rotary is finishing the eradication in the three remaining countries, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rotarians, in conjunction with the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Bill Gates Foundation, continue to work to eradicate this disease. PolioPlus works only in countries to which it has been invited, so the political decision of the country’s leaders plays a decided part in the program.

With the medical advances of recent years, some in the medical community foresee the complete eradication of the disease within a decade, and possibly much sooner. The Rotary Club of Birmingham is proud of the leadership of this worldwide campaign by Dr. Wright, who was then the President of Samford University. Even now, decades after Dr. Wright’s leadership fund-raising role and the tens of thousands of hours donated by Rotary volunteers, volunteers from the Rotary Club of Birmingham continue to travel to other countries to participate in the ongoing vaccination efforts.