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“We’re This Close” – World Polio Day, October 24th, 2017

Polio Physical Therapy

Once polio ranked as one of the most feared diseases in the United States. Today most Americans don’t give the disease a second thought.

The first recorded polio outbreak in the United States was in 1894 when Vermont reported 132 cases. In 1916, 27,000 cases in New York City resulted in 6,000 deaths. Researchers began looking for the cause of the incurable disease and for ways to treat it.

Polio is a wild virus that spreads through contaminated food and water, and can only reproduce inside humans. Polio affects a type of cell in the spinal column. When the cells die, the brain can’t send messages to affected muscles which wither from disuse. If the affected area is the chest or diaphragm, the patient can’t breathe.

Iron LungsIn 1927 the first Tank Respirators, generally called Iron Lungs, appeared to maintain respiration until the patient could breathe independently. Hospitals had Tank Respirator wards for those affected. In 1959, 1,200 Americans relied on Iron Lungs.

In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt, himself a polio victim, founded the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis, which led to the March of Dimes campaign to raise money for research. HIs successor, Harry Truman, declared the war on polio must be nation wide. “It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land.”

In 1952, 60,000 children contracted the disease. More than 3,000 died with thousands more paralyzed.


Salk headlinesResearchers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin conducted separate research projects to develop a vaccine. The Salk Vaccine, released in 1955, is injectable using an inactivated virus. The Sabine Vaccine, introduced in 1961, uses a live, weakened virus given orally.

I’m old enough to remember when my elementary school nurse inoculated every student in every class. While most of us calmly waited our turn, one boy flat-out refused to participate. We stood transfixed as he threw an amazing tantrum. Eventually, a teacher removed him from the line.

I also remember the Sabin Vaccine administered at what I believe was the local public park. The pink vaccine was administered in a sugar cube. No one seemed distressed by the process.

In the early 1950s, the U.S. had approximately 20,000 reported cases per year. In 1960, the figure fell to 2,525, and in 1965 only 61 cases were reported. The last outbreak in the U.S. was among Amish communities in several midwestern states. In 1979 polio was eradicated in the United States.

Polio vaccinationSuch dramatic results led to discussions of how to eradicate polio worldwide. In 1988 the World Health Assembly resolved to eradicate polio by the Year 2000, giving birth to Global Polio Eradication Initiative. It was the largest public health initiative in history, but the goal wasn’t reached. In 2012 the GPEI declared polio eradication a public health emergency.

Rotary International has participated in the fight against polio since 1985. Rotary raises funds, but more than that, Rotarians throughout the world provide the facilities and public health workers to distribute the Sabin vaccine. Two drops in a child’s mouth provides immunity.

In 2012 Rotary International began an on-going partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund global polio eradication. At the 2017 Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, Rotary International and the Gates Foundation announced a combined pledge of US$ 450 million over three years. Rotarians will raise US$ 50 million annually for three years with a two to one match by the Gates Foundation.


In 1988, there were 350,000 reported cases of polio world wide. The disease paralyzed over 1,000 children. Since then 2.5 billion children have been immunized with the cooperation of over two hundred countries, 20 million volunteers, and international contributions of over US$ 11 billion.

In July 2017 the number of polio cases worldwide was eight. The global incidence of polio is down 99 percent. The disease remains endemic in three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Polio’s continued existence anywhere is a threat everywhere.

Rotary International likes to say, “We’re This Close.” That’s the point. We’re close, but until polio is eradicated world wide for three years, the goal isn’t met.

Rotary International established World Polio Day on Jonas Salk’s birthday to honor the man who developed the first polio vaccine and remind everyone that polio still exists.

This year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosts the annual World Polio Day event at their Seattle campus. You can watch the event live on October 24th at 2:30 Pacific Daylight Time. [21:30 GMT]


Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain.

Physical Therapy for two children with polio, 1930s.

Iron Lung.

President’s Birthday Ball – So We May Dance Again, 1939.

Pediatric Polio Vaccination, India, 2002.

?Rotary’s 5th Annual World Polio Day Live-Streamed.

Gates Foundation to Host 2017 World Polio Day.

Iron Lung and Other Equipment.

Polio. Gates Foundation.

Polio Global Eradication Initiative

World Polio Day. World Health Organization.

Jason Beaubien. “Wiping Out Polio: How the U.S. Snuffed Out A Killer.” NPR. Oct. 15, 2012.

Frank Belote. “Rotary Celebrates World Polio Day.” Washington Daily News. Oct. 20, 2017.

Eric E Mast & Stephen L. Coach. “For the Record: A History of Polio Eradication Efforts.” Center for Disease Control.

Jay Wenger with Steve Almond. Our Goal: A World Without Polio. The Rotarian. Oct. 2017. 46-51.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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