SOMERSET —Ken Halverson, Somerset, remembers that when he was a child he was not allowed to go swimming in public pools because it was believed that was how polio spread.
“It was terrible — some of my friends had it and they still limp, all these years later,” he said.
For years polio was still found in four countries. But as of Friday India has gone one year without a reported new case of the disease.
“It’s wonderful news,” Halverson said. “Polio is being wiped out as a result of Rotary International, the Gates Foundation and the other partners.”
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the terror posed by polio at the time. Parents were afraid that their children would be stricken — possibly killed or condemned by paralysis to live inside iron-lung machines. From 1942 to 1955 the polio virus killed and crippled thousands.
Then in the early 1950s the first polio vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk and a team of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh. Within five years polio was all but wiped out in the United States. In 1958 Dr. Albert Sabin and his team developed the oral polio vaccine. There are an estimated 1.6 million polio survivors in this country.
Rotary began a PolioPlus program in 1985 and became a partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization and UNICEF are the other partners. Halverson was at a Rotary convention in Munich, Germany, in 1988 when Global Polio Eradication was adopted as a Rotary project. He and several others from Somerset went to Germany because a member from the Rotary District was being installed in an international office.
“When we came back our club adopted it,” Halverson said. “George Cook, who died recently, was chairman of our first campaign and our club raised $52,000. Polio was dreaded.”
Rotary members throughout the world have donated more than $1 billion to eradicate polio. India must go three years without a case for polio to be considered eradicated there. There are still cases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. There were 1,352 cases worldwide reported in 2011.
Rita Halverson, Ken’s wife, agreed that the India announcement is a reason to celebrate.
“I’m so proud that Rotary has played a major role in this,” she said.
Rotary members now are participating in a $200 million fundraising campaign in response to a $355 million challenge grant from the Gates Foundation.
Rotary International President Kalyan Banerjee lives in Vapi, India.
“I am immensely proud of what Rotary has accomplished,” he said in a written statement. “However, we know this is not the end of our work. Rotary and our partners must continue to immunize children in India and in other countries until the goal of a polio-free world is finally achieved.”