Ky. Voices: Polio still a scourge in the world

John Salyers of Erlanger, a former field representative for former U.S. Senator Jim Bunning, serves on the Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force of Rotary International.
John Salyers of Erlanger, a former field representative for former U.S. Senator Jim Bunning, serves on the Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force of Rotary International.

The United States experienced its last case of polio in 1979. In the 34 years since that time, a lot of things have gone by the wayside: cassette players, the Berlin wall and shoulder pads, to name a few.

However, while technologies, fashions and more have come and gone since 1979, polio still exists.

This disease once struck thousands of Americans during epidemics into the 1950s, when effective vaccines finally were developed. The worst epidemic was in 1952, when 58,000 Americans were infected, including 1,760 Kentuckians. Polio can cause serious effects, including muscle pain, paralysis and death. Just two drops of the oral polio vaccine will prevent this illness and its crippling effects.

We have made great strides against the disease —2012 saw just 223 cases of polio, compared with more than 350,000 cases in 1988. Yet, polio continues to threaten children in some of the world's poorest countries. Last year, dozens of people contracted the crippling illness in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, the three countries where the wild poliovirus has never been stopped.

I first engaged in the fight against polio through my involvement with the humanitarian service group Rotary International, the first organization to pursue polio eradication on a global scale.

Today, I serve on Rotary's Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force, working to educate others, particularly our elected leaders, about the support needed to eradicate this disease once and for all.

Earlier this month, I traveled with a United Nations Foundation delegation to the west-central African nation of Cameroon, where I witnessed firsthand polio's devastating effects. On our arrival in a village in Obala, we saw adults and children permanently disabled by polio, crawling for lack of access to modern mobility aids.

Although polio is no longer endemic to Cameroon, vaccinations must continue due to the risk of imported cases from neighboring Nigeria. During the visit, our delegation had the chance to immunize children. This was an incredible experience: to watch how a whole village reacted to the hope that lies in a small vial of polio vaccine.

We are at a historic moment in the fight against polio; experts say it is possible to eradicate the disease within the next five years. If successful, this will mark only the second human disease in history to be eradicated, after smallpox.

Why does polio still matter to Americans?

■ We are at a tipping point for polio eradication. Polio cases are at their lowest levels ever, and new cases have been reduced by more than 99 percent worldwide. We have to finish the job or we risk losing our gains entirely. The World Health Organization predicts that if not eradicated soon, polio could resurge, and cause upwards of 200,000 cases over the next 10 years.

■ Experts predict $40 billion to $50 billion in savings through 2035, if we can eradicate the disease. To date, the vaccine has prevented 10 million cases of lifelong polio paralysis.

■ Polio is 100 percent preventable. For a minimal cost, we can protect all children against the paralysis and other effects caused by polio.

How can you help?

■ Share: Let your friends and family know that polio still exists.

■ Advocate: Encourage your congressmen and women to pledge U.S. financial support to polio eradication through USAID and Centers for Disease Control programs. Currently, the U.S. is the biggest public-sector donor to polio-eradication efforts.

■ Donate: It costs as little as 60 cents to vaccinate a child against polio. Support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative by donating at endpolionow.org, or contact your local Rotary club for more information.

And when eradication is finally achieved, it should be especially gratifying to the people of Lexington, one of the most enthusiastic cities to participate in the historic 1954 national field trials that proved polio vaccine was safe and effective.

Nearly 1,280 Lexington children received the vaccine during a community-led campaign that garnered national attention in the December 1954 issue of Ladies Home Journal in a story headlined, "Have we won the fight against polio?"

At long last, we are this close to delivering a resounding answer to that question: Yes!