Rotary Club in Playa Jacó readies for last push against dreaded polio

When the global polio eradication initiative launched in 1988, the wild polio virus existed in 125 countries. Now, it exists in two.

A lot of the success can be credited to the Rotary Club, which worldwide has raised an astounding $1.2 billion and donated countless volunteer hours.

Among those involved in the fight are members of the Rotary Club of Garabito-Playa Jacó, which plans a benefit Friday at the Green Room Restaurant in Jacó Beach at 6 p.m.

The Green Room will donate a portion of their profit to the polio fund, said Thomas Ghormley, club president.

Three years ago, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, was the reservoir of more than half of the polio cases in the world. Then the country’s leaders, health workers and volunteers worked out a way to vaccinate even those children in areas where there was fighting. This year, the World Health Organization removed Nigeria from the list of polio endemic countries, the organization notes.

Polio, the dreaded crippler and killer, is a painful memory for those older than 55 years. It was in 1955 when Jonas Salk announced his vaccine.

Three years earlier a U.S. polio epidemic killed 3,145 and left 21,269 persons crippled.

An epidemic in Costa Rica in 1953 was directly responsible for founding the Hospital Nacional de Niños.  Ghormley notes that the Rotary Club was there, too.

More than 2,000 Costa Rican children suffered serious crippling because of the disease in 1953. Carlos Saenz Herrera and Roberto Ortiz Brenes, both physicians, created the Asociación Pro-Hospital Nacional de Niños. The association generated enough funds to open the hospital in 1964, which celebrated its 51st anniversary in May.

World Polio Day, which was Friday, follows a succession of significant developments that have made 2015 one of the most important years in the history of the polio eradication initiative, said the organization.

What started out as a program at one organization has become a global movement. The World Health Organzation, the United Nations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others have joined Rotary as part of a global polio eradication initiative.

The combined efforts have produced a 99 percent decrease in the number of polio cases.

Jay Wenger, director of the polio program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said, “We’re down to one epidemiological block, the Afghanistan-Pakistan cluster. That’s the only place in the world where the wild polio virus still lives, and if we could knock it out there, we’re finished with wild polio virus.”

In Pakistan, attacks on polio workers have horrified the world, but Rotary’s Carol Pandak said all polio workers now work on a local level so they are known in their communities.

“There’s truly a coordinated effort” among the polio partners, government workers and “thousands and thousands of health workers that are out there immunizing children,” she said.

The main challenge is to vaccinate children who are chronically missed, according to Ms. Pandak. “There’s a real focus on finding those children in those remaining pockets that have been inaccessible or are missed for whatever reason,” she said.

Another challenge is complacency. When the virus disappears from a region, parents become complacent about vaccinations. Despite having enough vaccine on hand, only 14 percent of children were vaccinated this year in Ukraine.

Ms. Pandak, who heads the Rotary program, said that in Ukraine, the issue is convincing Ukrainian parents to have their children immunized when the vaccine is made available.

Promotional poster for the dinner Friday.

Promotional poster for the dinner Friday.

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