American willpower will eradicate polio

Today is a good day to recognize that when people unite to fight a common enemy, we are practically unstoppable. When we come together for a common cause, there is no problem we cannot resolve.

By the early 20th century, Poliomyelitis (polio) had been literally crippling and killing America’s youth for more than 100 years. The medical profession had known about the baffling medical condition since 1835, but did not understand it. Epidemics of the disease had swept across the nation in 1914 and 1919.

But it didn’t come to national attention until 1921 when Franklin D. Roosevelt, the recently elected governor of New York, was diagnosed with polio. Partially paralyzed at age 39, and later elected president while confined to a wheelchair, Roosevelt rallied Americans to collectively defeat polio, a devastating disease once again on the rise.

On Jan. 3, 1938, Roosevelt announced the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which is known today as the March of Dimes. The national fundraising effort – just 10 cents for every child in America – funded research facilities to find a cure.

And it worked. On this day, 58 years ago – April 12, 1955 – the United States licensed a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk to combat polio, ending the most frightening public health crisis of the postwar era within three short years.

Thinking it had licked polio, the March of Dimes turned its attention after 1958 to preventing birth defects, pre-maturity and infantile mortality. The charity has since funded the work of 13 Nobel Prize-winning scientists, including Dr. James Watson, who discovered the double helix, or the structure of DNA.

Meanwhile, polio was quietly spreading throughout the world, so in 1988, three new organizations – Rotary Foundation, UNICEF and the World Health Organization – announced plans to eradicate polio worldwide. Such a grandiose goal had only been achieved twice, for smallpox and rinderpest.

After 25 years of hard work, polio teeters on the brink of extinction. World health officials estimated more than 350,000 new cases in 1988. Last year, they estimated 291, almost exclusively in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A New York Times article once described eliminating the last 1 percent “like trying to squeeze Jell-O to death.”

Polio is a tough virus to kill. Eradicating smallpox required only a single injection. Because polio spreads by fecal-oral transmission, children living in countries with open sewers must receive the vaccine up to 10 times.

But, with the help of almost $1 billion raised every year through the Rotary Foundation and through philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the battle goes on. Rotarians, such as Ralph Munro of the Olympia Rotary Club, travel to the international battlegrounds and administer the oral Sabin vaccine to one child at a time.

The fight to eradicate the poliovirus continues and ultimately will succeed because of American determination.