The polio virus is present in only two countries in the world now. There were fewer than 40 cases last year in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only a few decades ago the virus paralyzed tens of thousands in more than 130 countries.
Julie Dobski of Bloomington is the district director for Rotary International, which has pushed for decades to eliminate the virus. Dobski said she is excited to see the virus nearly gone from the planet.
She said the end of polio means savings of up to $50 billion for the world economy.
“Some of these countries,” said Rotarian Jane Chamberlain, “that have recently been declared polio free—those countries had an enormous amount of people that were not able to fully participate in the economy, in their lives fully, in their families fully.”
Chamberlain said medical support for those striken by polio and the poverty caused by their inability to support themselves has been a drain on the world.
Rotary is an apolitical, areligious global network with members who provide services, promote peace, and support the fight against disease among many other endeavors.
Among those endeavors is affecting the public perception of people with polio in countries where those with polio are ostracized. Chamberlain said that those stricken with polio have had their families move them to countries where they would be treated fairly.
Dobski said Rotary is a good conduit for tackling polio because the organization is worldwide.
“We have Rotarians all over the world,” Dobski said. “They get together, they talk about polio. I think that’s our biggest opportunity is to educate all Rotarians throughout the world.”
“I think part of the reason Rotary can make such a difference,” Chamberlain added, “is because of this depth and breadth of people involved. It’s also a trustworthy organization. We don’t get involved in the politics of a country, we are nongovernmental in nature, and it’s either ranked one or two in the most trustworthy foundation.”
Afghanistan and Pakistan have weak civil institutions, unhospitable geography for healthcare workers, unstable political climates, outright warfare in places, and suspicion of western influence. Chamberlain said that getting over distrust of westerners comes through Rotarians partnering with the people of those countries, especially the women.
“Women and mothers often will trust a health worker with the health of their child because of their immense care and love of their child,” Chamberlain said. “So when Rotarians go in they go in as a team. They have health workers, they’re volunteer Rotarians, and then they go in and they create a trusting environment and partner with the women of those neighborhoods, communities, and rural terrains.”
Were polio to be eliminated, it would be the second disease humans have eradicated completely. The first was smallpox.
“When anybody gets together as a group, things get done. And I think this is a prime example.” Dobski said.
“To think what could be next is even more hopeful,” Chamberlain said. “What could these partnerships that have made such a difference over 30 years saving millions of lives, averting millions of deaths, and millions of children with paralysis—what could we focus on next and make that kind of impact. It’s really inspiring.”
The Rotary held an event to light up the Bone Student Center on Thursday on World Polio Day. Next week is the anniversary of the birth of Jonas Salk, the man who found the vaccine for polio.
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