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The global war that doesn’t grab headlines

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POSTED September 14, 2013 1:44 a.m.

There is a global war going on.

When it ends in a few years, there won’t be screaming headlines or 24/7 coverage on cable TV news shows.

Yet the end of what has been a 28-year battle so far will mark a major milestone in civilization.

The war is the global eradication of polio.

Once a dreaded scourge of childhood even in the United States, a concerted effort by the 1.2-million member strong Rotary International is on the cusp of eradicating the virus worldwide over the next several years.

The word “polio” conjured up fear in this country as late as the 1950s before the Jonas Salk vaccine was developed in 1955 with the support of the March of Dimes. The virus can be deadly. But its signature legacy is paralyzing parts of the body forcing its young victims to deal with everything from having no muscle control in their legs for the rest of their lives to being forced to live in an iron lung.

There were 385,000 children stricken with polio during 1985. By 2012, the number of new worldwide cases had dropped to 291.

It is the direct result of arguably the most ambitious project ever undertaken by an international service club —  Rotary’s PolioPlus.

When the effort started in 1985, there were 71 polio-free countries and 125 that weren’t. By the end of 2012, there were 193 polio-free countries with only Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan classified as polio endemic.

The polio vaccine that also includes inoculation against other childhood diseases costs 60 cents. To effectively keep polio in check, every child must be immunized. The effort requires an ongoing immunization program in countries that are polio free.

Others have joined forces with Rotary in the bid to free the world’s children of polio with the most notable being the Bill Gates Foundation.

Most of us are fortunate not to have a grasp of what polio can do.

We can’t comprehend 11-year-olds being forced to crawl around because their legs are useless.

The three people I’ve known who were stricken with polio were infected here in California in the 1940s and in the 1950s. Charla was lucky to have a fairly mild case. In this case “luck” meant tiring easily when she walked and always being in pain.

Paul Yokote was confined to a wheelchair due to not being able to use his legs at all.

The third victim, Jesse, was a classmate in the third grade that used two canes to get around. He had one good leg. Polio had severely weakened the other.

Ironically Jessie had contracted polio in 1962. It was the same year that my mom took me to a polio clinic in Roseville where the vaccine was encased in a sugar cube.

Jessie was one of 910 new polio cases in the United States during 1962. Just two years earlier before the Salk vaccine became widely available there were 45,000 new polio cases in one year.

Salk was hailed as a national hero. It was understandable as every adult living in the 1950s had grown up knowing someone who was paralyzed or had died from polio.

Here we are in the United States some 60 years later and most of us never think about polio.

Making polio that inconsequential on a worldwide basis has been an unwavering goal of Rotary since 1985.

Just 90 years ago in the 1920s a major polio endemic in this country had parents forbidding their children from swimming and doing routine childhood activities due to fear that the highly communicable virus was transmitted by coming into contact with water. Today we have no such fears.

Rotary International has vowed not to rest until the word “polio” no longer strikes fear in the hearts of parents anywhere on the face of the earth or the actual virus cripples a child for life.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.

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