‘Don’t go near Billy’s house!’

  • Peter Zieg
    Peter Zieg

“Polio” was a scary word when I was growing up in the Midwest in the 1950’s.

Most elementary school children knew at least one family with a child who had contracted the dreaded, paralyzing polio virus. In my case, it was a boy my age living just a block from my home. We were told, “don’t go near Billy’s house!” And we didn’t.

We all had seen pictures of the huge “iron lung” machines in which polio patients were often placed to enable them to breathe. In the U.S. and around the world, hundreds of thousands of lives were ravaged by polio every year. The same dread we feel today during COVID-19 pandemic was experienced about polio.

As I got older, I knew adults who had survived polio, but were left with severe physical limitations, and problems standing and walking from the resulting muscle weakness. I still have friends with this “post-polio syndrome.”

In 1954 came a great breakthrough. Test trials began on the exciting new Salk Polio vaccine, and finally there was hope. Yes, I remember getting my polio shots. Even as polio inoculations eventually became widespread in North America, and the United States has been polio free since 1979, there were many places around the world where polio raged on unchecked killing thousands.

I was excited when, in 1988, my Rotary Club of Kissimmee West joined with the other thousands of Rotary Clubs around the globe, the WHO and other international partners to begin a campaign to eradicate polio around the world. Thirty-two years and billions of dollars later, we’re almost there. Polio has not been eradicated, but we’re getting very close.

Only two countries are still polio-endemic. The wild virus still circulates on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a declining number of locations in Africa. This has only been possible through the intense, multi-billion dollar efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, of which Rotary International is a major partner. Rotary has so far raised in excess of $2 billion in the effort.

On Oct. 24, World Polio Day, we celebrate Rotary’s partnership with the World Health Organization, the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation and other partners as we get close to eradicating polio from the face of the earth. We won’t quit until we get there.

With the recent emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rotary’s partnerships and disease combatting experience are already assisting in this new world wide health crisis.

With the motto “Service Above Self ” the six Rotary Clubs in Osceola County are all part of the effort: Rotary Clubs of Celebration, Kissimmee, Kissimmee Bay, Kissimmee West, Poinciana, and St. Cloud.

Peter J. Zieg is a member of Rotary Club of Kissimmee West. For further information, email pete@zieg.com.