Polio lives on – but just barely

A child in Kawo Kano, Nigeria, receives a polio vaccine. Nigeria celebrates its first year with no new case of polio.
A child in Kawo Kano, Nigeria, receives a polio vaccine. Nigeria celebrates its first year with no new case of polio. 2014 AP FILE PHOTO

The last and only disease eradicated from the earth was smallpox in 1980. We are getting close to the second.

Days ago, Africa achieved a giant milestone. On July 24, Nigeria, the last remaining polio endemic country on the continent, went one year without a single case of the Wild-Poliovirus.

Most people in Charlotte and the United States are unaware of the crippling and deadly disease polio. After all, we have been polio-free for 35 years. But the disease lives on around the world and is just a plane ride away.

In 1988, Rotary International with its 1.2 million members took up the cause to make the world polio-free. At that time there were 350,000 polio cases – almost the size of Charlotte that year.

Rotary, along with the World Health Organization, local and national governments, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many others have raised over $9 billion and spent millions of volunteer hours to immunize more than 1 billion children. And although it sounds overwhelming, it starts in the local communities, like Charlotte. There are 19 Rotary clubs in the Charlotte area, all of which raise money to fight this disease.

Last year, there were three polio-endemic countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Through July these countries have seen great advances. Pakistan remains the largest challenge to achieving global eradication. Last year Pakistan had 306 cases and this year-to-date the number has dropped to 28 cases. Afghanistan has dropped from 22 cases to 5 cases. And Nigeria dropped from 6 to zero cases.

Last year, India, the second largest country in the world, was certified polio-free.

So out of 7 billion people on this planet, there have been 33 polio cases this year. That is a 99.99 percent reduction from 1988.

Think about what 33 people represents – the children in one CMS classroom – one classroom out of the entire world.

While these accomplishments are noteworthy, there is much work to be done and many health workers are cautious. Over the past two years there have been several very small outbreaks, which the World Health Organization has quickly reacted to. All of these are back under control, but these outbreaks are a harsh reminder that until polio is eliminated everywhere, it can return.

To gain certification, a country or area has to remain polio-free for three years. All of the countries mentioned above continue to have National Immunization Days either underway or planned for this fall. Hundreds of millions of children will continue to get a dose of the vaccine until we are done.

While there is still work to be done, today we should celebrate that Africa is polio-free.

Charlotte-area residents can help by contributing to Rotary’s Polio Plus program through a local Rotary club. All of the contribution is directed to this effort and each dollar is matched with two dollars by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. You can be part of history helping eradicate a disease that has been around since the Pharaohs of Egypt.

John Tabor is a past president of the Rotary Club of Charlotte, the second largest club on the East Coast and the 31st largest club in the world out of 34,000. In 2012, he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise funds to fight polio.