By Maria Saporta
So far this year, there have only been 171 new cases of polio in the world — and those cases were in only three countries — Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. That compares to 467 new cases at this time in 2011.
In 1988, when Rotary International adopted polio eradication as one of its priorities, polio infected and disabled about 350,000 people a year in more than 125 countries.
On World Polio Day — Oct. 24 — Rotary Clubs across the world had reason to celebrate. Since 1988, Rotarians have contributed more than $1.2 billion towards the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
It has partnered with the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bill and Melinda Gates also have become partners in the effort and they have donated hundreds of millions of dollars towards the effort.
In Atlanta, the Shepherd Center hosted a gathering in honor of World Polio Day where Rotarians are re-intensifying their efforts through the “End Polio Now” campaign.
It also is known as Rotary’s “This Close” campaign — as in “we are this close to ending polio” —with photos of dozens of celebrities and world leaders all holding their thumbs and index fingers about two inches apart.
Those celebrities include Ted Turner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bill Gates, Jackie Chan, Amanda Peet among dozens of others.
“It’s not a celebration yet,” said Robert Hall, who is a coordinator of Rotary International End Polio Now for Georgia, Florida and the Caribbean. “The end is really in site. Our hope is that polio will be gone in the next two years. Then it will take three years with no new cases to claim that polio has been eradicated.”
If that timing actually plays out, Hall said that polio could be eradicated in time for when Rotary International will hold its annual convention in Atlanta in 2017. It just so happens that Hall is chair of the Rotary International Convention 2017 Atlanta Host Committee.
For more than 20 months, there have been no new reported cases of polio in India. If no new cases are detected in the next 15 months, India will be able to claim that it has been able to eradicate polio.
Although there are so few cases left, Hall said that a $700 million funding gap exists to totally end polio. If successful, it would the second disease that had been eradicated after smallpox.
The Atlanta Rotary Clubs have given more than $1 million towards the effort. The top local contributor has been Wilton Looney, retired CEO of Genuine Parts. Looney’s wife, Martha, was stricken with polio decades ago and she still suffers from the disease. Looney has contributed more than $500,000 to Rotary’s polio eradication effort.
During the event at the Shepherd Center, Bill Nordmark, a former president of the Rotary Club of Atlanta,, spoke about his own experience with polio. He was three-and-a-half years old in 1953 when he crawled up on his mother’s lap, and his facial features were distorted.
“I had contracted polio,” Nordmark said. “We could not have made it through without the March of Dimes. I was in an iron lung for a year.”
The kind of polio he had contracted impacted his breathing, and he ended up being partly paralyzed in the face. Some children were cruel to him, but what really hurt were the adults.
As Nordmark said: “We have got to eradicate polio so that other children in the future don’t have to deal with it.”