U.S. is still polio-free, but it lurks elsewhere

Tom KingFarragut

Many young people today, if asked about polio, have either never heard of polio or know next to nothing about this disease that, in 1952, infected some 60,000 children and killed 3,000.  It was not a rich-poor disease.  It was contagious – and still is – in some countries.

One of our country’s presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, suffered from polio.

Thanks to the Salk and Sabin vaccines, the last cases of polio in the U.S. were eradicated in 1979 in a few isolated Amish communities. The Western Hemisphere reported its last case, in Peru, in 1991.  In the 1950s and 1960s, I remember children and adults I knew spending days in iron lung machines and walking around with leg braces on. Swimming pools closed in the summers. Polio as the fear, not the flu.

Unfortunately, polio is alive today and spreading in a number of countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rotary International, the Rotary Club of Farragut and the five other clubs in Knoxville, are part of a worldwide coalition to eradicate this disease. Rotary works closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to eradicate polio and not allow it back into the U.S. or the Western Hemisphere.

Our club and others are part of Rotary District 6780 and Rotarian John Downs of the Rotary Club of Sparta is the chair of the district’s “End Polio Now” project. Earlier this week he sent me his most recent report about polio and it truly earned my attention.

“As of January 29, there had been 168 confirmed cases of polio worldwide in 2019, a significant increase over 2018 when 33 cases were recorded. The 2019 total is still not considered final as reporting often lags occurrence by several weeks or more,” John said. This is not good news!

“Looking closer at the two countries where the wild poliovirus continues to circulate, Afghanistan saw 29 cases in 2019 vs. 21 in 2018 and Pakistan experienced 139 cases vs. 12 cases in 2018,” he added.

Clearly, Pakistan is the bigger threat, not only because of the significantly larger increase in the number of reported cases, he said, but due to the fact that many of the cases reported by Afghanistan can be traced back through the porous border shared by the two countries.

“Additionally, there is growing concern that refusal by individuals and communities to accept vaccination, in addition to problems with the politicization of the national polio program in Pakistan, will allow the virus to spread beyond the localized region between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” John says. In fact, volunteers in both countries have been killed while trying to administer the vaccine to children.

This coming Sunday District 6780 is holding its “3rd Annual Pack the Rink for Polio” event at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum. This polio eradication fundraiser has the Knoxville Ice Bears playing the Rivermen of Peoria. Tickets are $18, and $5 of each ticket Rotarians buy or sell will go to fight polio. Plus, the Gates Foundation is doing a 2-1 match, so that $5 donation turns into $15.

As Rotary continues its fight to eradicate polio, I recall the sobering words from then Rotary International President John Germ of Chattanooga: “Polio is only a flight away from returning to the United States.”

That speaks to both its very contagious nature and why its eradication is so deeply important to all of us.

If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop me an email at tking535@gmail.com We meet at 12:15 p.m. each Wednesday at Fox Den Country Club. You also can call me at 865-659-3562.

Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and has been the editor at two newspapers. He started writing for KnoxTNToday in 2017.

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