Polio Free India
An amazing Rotary Experience
By Lee Jeffrey, M.D.
When Krishna Murthy, a fellow physician and Rotarian, asked my wife and me to join a group of Rotarians to go to India to participate in their last National Immunization Day and celebrate 3 years of no new cases of polio our hearts said yes but our heads said it is not feasible. The event was to occur in about 3 to 4 weeks but the date was not actually set until the government of India could be certain enough vaccine was available. Getting a visa usually takes about 4 weeks. Would airline tickets be available? We both had lots of commitments and there were many other logical reasons to say no. After 46 years of marriage we looked at each other and said “let’s see if we can make it happen”. If you make the effort sometimes things just work out despite a high risk of failure.
We paid to expedite our visa. The date was finally set for February 23 so we could start searching for tickets. In-country arrangements were managed by the Rotary Clubs in the 3 cities of Bangalore, Mysore, and Shimoga. Team members would spend 2 nights in homes of the member in each city. They put us contact with a travel agent how made arrangements for us to visit the highlights of Jaipur, Agra, and Deli. As nature lovers we hoped to see a tiger in the wild so we set up safaris in bird sanctuaries and 2 tiger preserves in different National Parks after the Rotary duties were done.
It all came together. Our “Friendship Exchange Team” was made up of Dr. Murthy, Past District 5440 Governor Mike Forney from Steamboat, my wife Carla, and myself. We departed DIA on Feb 16 and were met by Rotarians when our flight arrived in Bangalore airport at 3:30 AM on February 18.
Born in 1941, I knew some friends who had Polio. Some died when paralysis of muscles in the chest wall make it impossible to breathe. . Some were left paralyzed for life. Some gradually or partially recovered. The cause was not known but in hope of protecting us my Mom said we should not go swimming or eat bananas. A few years later it was learned that a virus was the cause and by 1952 Jonas Salk developed a vaccine of inactivated virus which was injected. Albert Sabin licensed an oral vaccine of attenuated virus in 1962. By the late 1970’s Polio was eliminated in the USA.
Rotary is an organization of successful leaders who share the belief that by serving those less fortunate than themselves we can make the World a better place. It was founded in Chicago on February 23, 1905. Its first project was to see that there were public restrooms in downtown Chicago. Now there are 1.2 million Rotarians in 33.000 clubs throughout 190 countries. Although Smallpox is the only disease that has ever been known to be eliminated, Rotarians in 1985 decided to eliminate Polio. It took a few years but in 1988 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative officially began. There were still 360,000 new cases of polio each year reported throughout the rest of the World
Over the past 30 years, Rotarians have contributed $1.3 billion to this cause. More importantly they have brought other individuals, other service clubs, and organizations such as WHO and UNICEF into the battle against this devastating disease. Governments have joined in. The United States government has contributed $2.3 billion to date with $204 million for 2014. The Gates Foundation currently matches every dollar that Rotary gives with $2. By 2012 the number of new cases was down to 276 (from 360.000 in 1988).
Many believed that polio could not be eliminated in India with its population of 1.3 billion. However with Rotary leadership and strong commitment from the Indian Government, the last reported case occurred in India on Jan 11, 2011. National Immunization Day programs were initiated with the objective of vaccinating every child under 5 years of age with additional doses of the oral vaccine. Populated areas were divided into segments in which every living quarter was visited by a team who determined how many children were eligible and talked to the families about the importance of the vaccination. Books with the identity of every eligible child were prepared. On the NID each child receives the vaccine and the fingernail of the left fifth finger is marked with an indelible purple pen (hence called the “Purple Pinkie”). The books record who was vaccinated. For 2 or 3 days after the National Immunization Day the teams again go to every home in their area and vaccinate any child who did not come to the vaccination booths on NID by showing their purple pinkie. On this year's NID over175 million children throughout India were vaccinated. Our team worked with the Rotarian organizers and had the opportunity to administer the vaccine, mark the pinkies purple, and then play with the children who were absolutely beautiful. We participated in the speeches, viewed the classical Indian dancers and enjoyed the delicious food to celebrate POLIO FREE INDIA.
Staying in the homes gave us a great insight into the lives of those who hosted us. We got to ask our questions about arranged marriages, the Hindu religion and other philosophies of their lives. It enforced our belief that we humans all want about the same things; a safe and secure environment and the chance to raise our children to be happy adults.
Today there are only 3 countries who have reported new cases of wild virus Polio: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. All three have Islam as their predominant religion. Their religious leaders tend to teach that Western ways are evil. Unfortunately the number of new cases of polio went from the 276 cases in 2012 to 406 cases in 2013. Taliban dominated areas say the vaccination program is a Western spy initiative administering derivatives that come from pigs and that the vaccine will “cause impotency. In Pakistan volunteers for Polio Vaccination Teams have been targeted by the Taliban with 40 team members and their guards killed since December of 2012. Governments in these countries lack the organizational capabilities and infrastructure to accomplish what India has shown.
Despite these problems the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has developed a 5 year “Endgame Strategic Plan” estimated to require $5 billion to administer. Polio free countries are closing their borders unless those hoping to enter have been vaccinated. Unless the virus is completely eliminated it is likely that we will return to where we started in 1988.
Although there are difficult times ahead to achieve a Polio Free World it was truly inspirational to see how individuals, organizations like Rotary, NGOs, and private foundations can work with governments by dreaming impossible dreams and then working together to make our world a better place.
I confess that we never saw the tiger and it was a cloudy overcast day that made photography difficult to show the true beauty of the Taj Mahal. But it was a great experience and it presents the opportunity to go back and look for the tiger and see the Taj at sunrise on a day with good light. Likewise, if we continue our immunization efforts despite the high risk, hopefully in a few years we can go back to celebrate a POLIO FREE WORLD and get another chance to see the elusive tiger.
Lee Jeffrey, M.D. is president of the Rotary Club of Fort Collins.
The Rotary Club of Fort Collins has been working to advance world understanding, goodwill and peace through our fellowship of business, professional, and community leaders since 1918.