Polio lessons

All the talk and the news lately is about “the vaccine”. From the time we are born there are vaccines administered to protect us against a multiplicity of diseases, however the one that is reminiscent of the current mass vaccine effort for COVID-19 takes me back to one of my earliest memories.

Our class was to be next. We were shuffled to the main hall in the old Mount Forest Public School. I recall it being dark in contrast to the white uniforms of the public health doctor and nurses. We were lined up in alphabetical order for our polio shots. It was a happy day for our parents who lived in fear of their child being inflicted by the dreaded disease that had handicapped many.

Then there was Larry. He attended one of the country schools and we became classmates in Grade 9. He had been in a wheelchair since age six due to polio. We took turns wheeling him from class to class – just one of the gang. I don’t know his story – somehow he just slipped through the cracks – but he was a constant reminder of our good fortune in having been inoculated.

In 1955 a safe and effective vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk and the developed world began the mass vaccination of its younger population. Left behind were millions of children in under-developed countries where the disease flourished. It is believed that it spreads from person to person typically through contaminated water.

In 1979, Rotary International, a worldwide service organization recognized the need and began fund raising to support technical expertise and vaccine production. In that year six million children in the Philippines were vaccinated. The goal was to eradicate polio from the world which was a daunting task for service clubs. This initiative was recognized by the World Health Organization which joined forces with Rotary to establish the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Since then the Initiative has other partners, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UNICEF.

Currently, 99.9% of the world’s children are protected with the vaccine and only Afghanistan and Pakistan remain with a sprinkling of cases. Rotary International has raised close to $1 billion dollars and has pledged $50 million annually until the job is done.

Our local Fergus-Elora Rotary Club has contributed thousands of dollars to the cause each year since 1979. Our guest speakers are thanked with our pledge to provide funds to inoculate 40 children in honour of their visit. The club is proud to support Rotary’s ongoing quest to rid the world of polio and also thankful for our community’s support.

The world has changed and as we become more of a global community there is recognition that we can’t ignore Third World countries when it comes to the eradication and control of diseases. It appears that the developed world won’t ignore COVID-19 as it did polio, perhaps for its own good or perhaps for the better good.    

Bob Grant,