October 24 each year is designated as World Polio Day. Why this date? Well, it’s the birth date of Jonas Salk who led the team that developed the very first poliomyelitis (polio) vaccine in 1955. The day was established by Rotary International, and the service club has been active in the fight against this crippling disease for many years. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has been supported by Rotary International, World Health Organization, UNICEF, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the governments of countries around the world.
What is polio? In a nutshell, it’s a virus that can attack nerves leading to partial or full paralysis, deformed limbs and death by asphyxiation. It has been described as the most feared childhood disease in Canada in the 20th century. I know that many of our younger generations likely don’t realize what all the fuss is about but for those of us who are called baby boomers, we have firsthand knowledge. The mother of one of my best friends was one of the many victims of the epidemic that occurred in the early to mid 1950s. One of my schoolmates was also afflicted. I’m also personally aware of a couple of residents of Invermere who were fortunate enough to survive an attack.
But what does it mean to us today? Canada was certified polio-free in 1994. The drive for eradication is and has to be a worldwide effort however because so long as there is one case, the disease can spread throughout the un-immunized population again. Endemic now in only three countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria — there have been reported cases in other countries. The most recent, in western China, was traced back to Pakistan. Carriers can be non-symptomatic so are not easily identified.
The oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin has simplified the process of immunization and each dose today costs just 60 cents. We can all help… and Canadian Rotary Clubs are once again leading the way. A fundraising initiative was recently announced at the United Nations in which the Canadian government and the Gates Foundation have pledged to match dollar for dollar up to $1 million raised by Canadian Rotarians. The initiative is called Pennies and More for Polio and every penny counts. If you can spare a penny or two, please do so.