350 000 per year!  That's almost 1000 children infected every day.  At that rate, the entire population of Cobourg could be infected in a little more than two-and-a-half weeks.  At that rate, 18 000 people, somewhere in the world, would be crippled, paralysed or killed in about half a month.

According to the World Health Organization, in 1988 Poliomyelitis (Polio) was infecting 350 000 people per year; that's an average of 959 new infections per day.  The statistics were relatively the same in 1985, so when Rotary International started the Polio Plus campaign in that year, it must have seemed a little like a page out of David and Goliath.  But when the World Health Organization committed to worldwide polio eradication in 1988, it must have seemed as though the success of this impossible dream was becoming a lot more likely.Iron Lung

Since I'm living in a country that has been polio-free for the majority of my life, I will never be able to fully comprehend the fear associated with the virus.  None of my friends or family have been killed by the virus, nor have they suffered any of its debilitating effects.  But, when I spoke to Dr. Bob Scott, the Chairman of the International Polio Plus Committee and Past Chair of the Rotary Foundation, about polio he laid it out pretty clearly for me, "When I was growing up, we had to be very careful.  And our parents were terrified if, in the fall, we got an illness . . . Swimming pools were shut, cinemas were shut because these were the places people thought it could be passed on.  All sorts of restrictions were put on us as kids so that, hopefully, we didn't get polio."  

Even after Dr. Scott told me this, I don't think that I thoroughly understood just how different my life, in a rich, polio-fee country, is from the lives of the people living in the four countries (India, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan) that are not polio-free.  That is, I didn't understand it until Bob Scott told me about one of the many memorable moments that he encountered during his involvement in the Rotary campaign.

Indian polio child"You look back in the crowd and you know why you're there.  Because there [are] kids ………. who can't walk.  They're what we call the sand-crawlers.  They have to crawl along on the ground the whole day, their whole life, until they succumb to some disease."  And, just consider this: that situation was entirely preventable.  We have an effective vaccine to prevent polio.  A vaccine that costs a mere sixty cents per dose.  Sixty cents could have allowed those children to retain the use of their legs.  Sixty cents could have given them the chance for a better quality of life.  No wonder Dr. Scott has dedicated so much of his life to this campaign.

Hearing about the sand-crawlers allowed me to finally gain insight into how important polio eradication really is, a fact that many people discovered during the polio epidemic of the 1900s.  With that in mind, it didn't come as a surprise when Dr. Scott told me that, in its first year, the Polio Plus campaign surpassed its goal of $120 million and raised $247 million instead.  The world was driven by its fear of polio's incapacitating effects.  The motivation was there, but could that alone combat the sheer number of polio infections?

Luckily, 24 years before Rotary launched the PolioPlus campaign, the oral-vaccine for polio was developed.  Cheap and effective, the oral polio vaccine (OPV) was created by Dr. Albert Sabin in 1961.  It cost only about sixty cents per dose, was easy to administer and was very effective.  In fact, Dr. Scott attributes much of the worldwide campaign's success to this vaccine.  It was the perfect weapon to aid in the eradication of polio.

Sudan deliveryNow, in 2009, the international movement has produced a reduction in the number of new cases of polio by more than 99%.  In fact, in 2006, only 2000 new cases of polio were reported for the entire year, compared to the 959 new cases per day that were occurring in 1988. 

Impressive as these statistics are, we can never be sure of how the campaign will end until the process is finished.  There are still four countries that are not polio-free, although that is four countries instead of the more than 125 countries that were polio-endemic in 1988.  But the cultural and delivery difficulties in these four countries are immense.  

However, as long as one child has polio, all the children in the world are vulnerable to the virus.  It is estimated that it will take about $1.8 billion to complete the campaign and eradicate polio from, not only the four polio-endemic countries, but the entire world.  

The seemingly impossible goal is within reach.  Polio eradication is attainable within my lifetime.  It may be that the next generation will grow-up without ever having heard of polio, save in history class when they talk about how a few crazy people, Bob Scott included, made the impossible dream of polio eradication a reality.  It appears that, despite the original odds, David is poised to win.

By: Helen Stopps, CDCI West student