Local efforts to eradicate polio worldwide were celebrated Wednesday by the Rotary Club of South Surrey, when members used their weekly breakfast meeting to mark World Polio Day (Oct. 24).
For speaker Ken Smith – who reviewed the history of the disease and Rotary’s contribution to quashing it – the effort has a personal side to it. While Smith never contracted polio as a child, he lived through an outbreak of it in the ’50s.
“It was very, very frightening,” he recalled. “All of a sudden I had three or four (classmates) sitting beside me, iron braces on their legs.”
Smith described polio as “a really nasty virus” – a contagion that primarily targets children, with no cure, that imbeds itself in a host’s digestive system and, at its worst, prevents ability to breathe.
“It’s like cutting the wires to a machine – it basically takes away your connection to the nerve,” he said.
Tackling polio has been a Rotary Foundation priority since 1979, and over the years, the five Peninsula Rotary clubs have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars towards vaccination efforts.
The March of Dimes – which evolved from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 – marked the first time as a society that money was raised for a disease, Smith noted.
Describing Rotary’s decision to get involved as “genius,” Smith said polio’s eradication will be an “even bigger” moment in history than the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and other global milestones.
Other Rotarians who shared their brushes with polio included Peter Herz, who recalled the fear parents had when a child – himself included – fell ill. Polio was always the first thought, he said.
Club president Renee Nicholson recalled how “everything” was shut down in Vancouver when polio was rampant.
Smith, sharing a September statement from the Polio Oversight Board, said the “last reservoir” of the virus exists in just two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – and the hope is that its transmission will end in the next year.
Noting it’s estimated that $1.5 billion is need to complete the mission, Smith said the figure is not as daunting as it may sound.
“That’s probably one day of financing U.S. military,” he said. “That’s not a lot of money.”