Touched by polio, blessed by Rotary

I was intrigued with the latest article by Col. Richard Heyman regarding contagious disease, and the polio epidemic. I lived through the polio scares in the 1940s and ’50s. I was impacted with my father’s older brother having paralyzed legs, as did President Franklin Roosevelt. 

My uncle contracted polio on a ranch in Montana, 16 miles off the county road. A very contagious disease. It was brought home to me while I was in the elementary school in Everett, which in the 1940s was a hotbed during the summer for polio.  

I attended a three-story beautiful 1900 schoolhouse. One morning around 9:30 the gal who sat beside me stood up and vomited. She was sent to the nurse. 

Next day we had a letter to take home that she had been diagnosed with polio, and she was in the hospital. One week later another friend, as we hung up our coats, told me she wasn’t feeling well. About 10:30 that morning she was also sent to the nurse, and sent home. Next day we had another letter to take home to our parents, that she was now in the hospital in serious condition – with polio.

I don’t remember schools being closed. I do remember movie theaters and other activities being closed. I recall in 1948 the movie “Red River” was playing at the Roxy Theatre. My friend and his sister went to the movie and told me the plot the next day. I wanted to go, but being a 12-year-old, my mother told me “No,” I was not going out any more than necessary. Two years later my mother and I attended a packed movie theater. I had no indication of being ill at all, but next morning I showed signs of chickenpox. I have no idea how many people I infected in that crowded theater. 

In late March or early April of 1947, I was standing with my parents in the doctor’s office. We were waiting to be inoculated for smallpox. There had been an outbreak in New York City, which claimed some lives. There was a national emergency proclaimed. By the end of April, there was something like six million smallpox vaccines given, as news headlines at that time said the 5 millionth person was inoculated in a two-week period. 

Similar to the story of Typhoid Mary. She was an Irish cook and in 1909 she was credited with infecting 51 people she came in contact with – three having died. She never contracted typhoid fever. Another case, one of many – “Tony” infected 122 people in New York City in 1921. He also never came down with the disease. 

The point is – the virus among us today is carried by many people. In one report I heard, a person who carries the virus on their clothing or saliva, or hands, could infect 2½ other individuals. The virus lives in the air, on stainless steel. We must take this virus seriously to save the nation and future generations.

A vaccine will be developed to conquer and eradicate this new virus. 

The good Colonel spoke of Jonas Salk and the vaccine he developed in March of 1953. Again, the radio news and newspapers made a huge issue out of the vaccine being perfected and accepted. Salk was a research biologist who developed the vaccine through his private sources with private donations. The vaccine was given by shot. In the beginning. In 1961 it was given as liquid drops in the mouth, which is how my children were given the polio vaccine.  

The Rotary International set a goal in 1985 that we would eradicate polio throughout the world. In 1986, when the program was presented to the Cottage Grove Rotary Club, membership pledged dollars to that program. By 1988 Rotary had raised $247 million.

When worldwide eradication of polio is complete, it is estimated Rotary will have raised $1.2 billion As a result, the intensive efforts of more than 2 billion children have received the oral polio vaccine. This is worldwide, over two generations.  

The U.S. was declared polio-free in 1994. The western Pacific region was declared polio-free in 2000 and the European region in 2002. In 1985 the number of polio cases in the world was reduced by over 99%. There are still pockets of polio in parts of Africa and South Asia. Pakistan and Afghanistan were some of the recent success stories. Rotary purchases the vaccines for worldwide use, and it is administered by volunteer Rotarians.  

A great deal of credit must go to Bill and Nancy Gates, as they have contributed millions of dollars to the PolioPlus worldwide program.

I must emphasize, from personal experience, news stories, and medical information, how important it is to stay out of crowds, wash your hands, stifle coughs and sneezes. This disease is spread at a rapid rate.

We will get through this, and resume the wonderful life we have in a very fortunate country.

Don Williams is a Cottage Grove resident and longtime Rotary International member. 



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