Efforts by Rotary International to immunize children around the world have nearly eradicated polio, but it’s important to keep pushing forward.
“We can’t let our foot off the gas,” said Dr. Delane Wycoff, PolioPlus chairman for District 5630, the Rotary district covering much of Nebraska west of Grand Island. “We’ve got to protect our kids all the time.”
Wycoff, a North Platte physician specializing in pathology, gave an update on the prevalence of the disease Tuesday at the Sunrise Rotary meeting at Mary Lanning Healthcare.
Poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, is a highly infectious viral disease that mainly affects young children, according to the World Health Organization website.
Wycoff started with some history and background of the infection around the world and in Nebraska.
He said the first known description of the disease dates back to 1789. The first outbreak in epidemic forms in the United States came in 1894.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as president of the United States from 1933-45, contracted polio at age 39 in 1921 and lived with paralysis from the disease for the rest of his life, which had a major impact on public perception. Roosevelt helped form the organization now known as the March of Dimes in 1938.
Wycoff said Nebraska had 53 deaths from polio in 1954 before a vaccine was developed the following year.
“Most of us that are over 65 remember the days when polio hadn’t been beaten,” he said. “There was a real sense of fear when these outbreaks came up.”
He said the public fear came from the fact that most infected people don’t have symptoms but can still spread the virus.
Only one in 10 people who contract polio ever get sick. One in 200 end up with the neurological effects that can lead to paralysis or death. For each death, there are 20 people who became ill and another 200 who don’t show symptoms.
Wycoff explained that Rotary International became involved in efforts to fight polio in 1979. In 1982, the organization embraced the mission to vaccinate children across the world by 2005. The World Health Organization partnered with Rotary in 1988 to enhance immunization efforts.
By 2003, there were just six countries — Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria and Pakistan — considered endemic, meaning the infection is constantly maintained in the country without external inputs.
Three years later, Egypt and Niger were dropped from the list.
Dale Schultz of Hastings was among the Rotary members to participate in National Immunization Day efforts. He has participated in two overseas trips to immunize children in India in 2010 and 2011.
He said what he remembers most from those experiences were the smiling faces of children who knew they wanted to help and the poor living conditions in impoverished countries.
“I thought I knew what poverty was like until I got there,” said Schultz, who served as Rotary district governor for District 5630 in 2018-19.
Efforts like Schultz’s helped immunize enough people to cut down on wild polio cases in India and Wycoff said India was removed from the endemic list in 2012 even though many said it couldn’t be done.
Nigeria was taken off the list in 2014 so Wycoff said the key focus of Rotary efforts have turned to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Immunization efforts in those countries have met with resistance as citizens have been told the vaccine is harmful.
In 2016, a new challenge emerged in the form of vaccine-derived polio. Wycoff said that areas with poor sanitation and inadequate vaccine coverage created conditions where the weakened virus could mutate into a circulating virus.
Wycoff said a renewed effort to increase vaccinations has helped reduce vaccine-derived polio, but it will take a continued effort to prevent the virus from resurfacing.
“It’s living so long that it can mutate back to a live virus,” he said. “That’s why it’s important not to under-vaccinate.”
For more information or to donate to the cause, visit endpolionow.org.