Pulling the plug on polio

March 25, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

As Tom Moore traveled the outskirts of Mumbai, India, in late February 2002, the harsh reality of lives derailed by polio hit harder than the surprising heat, humidity and mosquitoes ever could.

The Hagerstown man's father had endured the virus, so Moore knew what the infectious disease could do. But, he learned, there is a stark difference between hearing stories and seeing, firsthand, the devastation polio brings.

All around him, crippled children and adults used braces or makeshift crutches to hobble along. They were the lucky ones, he knew, for he had seen the alternative: children, dragging themselves across the ground with toughened hands and thickly calloused knees, their useless, deformed legs sprawled behind them like a frog's.


"You look in their eyes and you realize this could have been prevented with two drops of vaccine," Moore says. "That's a very helpless feeling, because it's not a disease that can't be eradicated. Knowing that, and knowing they still contracted the disease, it's a feeling where you say, 'We shouldn't waste any more time.'"

Where polio is concerned, Moore and thousands like him are racing the clock to fund a cure.

Moore is a member of the Sunrise Rotary in Hagerstown, and his trip to Mumbai included attendance at a four-day Rotary International PolioPlus Summit. Since 1985, Rotary clubs worldwide have undertaken an ambitious effort to eradicate the disease, which has been erased from all but a handful of countries, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Until June 30, Rotary clubs worldwide are soliciting pledges toward the Polio Eradication Fundraising Campaign, with a goal of raising $80 million. With nearly three months remaining, $53 million has been pledged.

"We don't live in a box," says Charles Town, W.Va., Rotarian Pamela Holstein-Wallace. "We can care about others, regardless of the country they're in. We know it can be eradicated, because it's been done here. We're just too close to stop now."

Her club, with 47 members, has solicited $5,700 in pledges, exceeding a revised goal of $5,500. A dozen clubs within 20 miles of Hagerstown have had similar success, Moore says, generating donations of $90,000. Their cumulative goal had been $20,000.

They are among 44 clubs that comprise District 7350, which spans West Virginia's eastern panhandle and western Maryland to central Pennsylvania. While Holstein-Wallace says it is a difficult fund-raising environment, the benefits of even small donations are dramatic. A pledge of $100, she says, pays to vaccinate 1,200 children.

In the 18 years since targeting polio, Rotary International has raised more than $500 million, placing it among the worldwide leaders in financial support. Dr. Bob Scott, the volunteer manager of the Polio Eradication Campaign, says the generosity of Rotarians provides valuable leverage when convincing other governments and organizations to open their wallets.

"We like to say we are showing the way," says Scott, a Canadian temporarily based in Evanston, Ill. "We're the conscience."

At its peak, polio paralyzed or killed 500,000 a year and caused panic around the world. Hagerstown Rotarian and District 7350 Gov. John P. Corderman remembers how, as a boy, his parents refused to take him to a municipal swimming pool for fear it was a breeding ground for the virus.

Early symptoms of the disease include fever, fatigue, neck stiffness, and muscle pain or spasms. By causing paralysis, severe cases lead to death by asphyxiation. Polio vaccines developed in the 1950s and '60s led to eradication of the virus in most industrialized countries, including the United States.

What's left are pockets of infection Rotarians hope to eliminate by 2005, the civic organization's centennial. And though polio has not been a large-scale threat domestically for years, Corderman and Moore say it is not difficult to persuade people this is a worthwhile fight.

"I think it's something we don't think about normally on a daily basis," Corderman admits. "But when we're reminded, older people recall and younger people, confronted with these crippled people in other lands, respond."

Virginia Grove applauds their efforts. Diagnosed with polio in 1958 as an infant, the 47-year-old Hagerstown woman spent 11 years in rehabilitation camps as a child.

She received muscle and tendon transplants in her left arm. She wore braces on both legs and her left arm. Her left hand is smaller than her right, and her left leg is an inch shorter than the other.

And she suffers from post-polio syndrome. Constant muscle pain, weakness and spasms signal a regression of the disease that will eventually leave her without use of her left arm and leg.

Still, Grove says, she is among the lucky ones.

"I don't have any outward signs of disability," she says. "Looking at me, you wouldn't know. But there are a lot of kids, and adults, out there that aren't so lucky."

The Rotary effort is noble, but Grove wonders whether complete eradication will ever take place. After all, she remembers the skepticism that kept her mother from vaccinating her as a girl.

"I imagine," she says, "that skepticism still exists today."

Nevertheless, Rotarians continue their quest, confident in its imminent success.

Moore's resolve was cemented by taking part in an eradication day of providing vaccinations to children in Mumbai. He held them, spoke with them and emerged with a determination to beat back the disease.

Holstein-Wallace has not traveled abroad, yet she possesses the same sense of obligation.

"There are things we can do locally that can help a child on the other side of the Earth," she says. "When you think about it, we're all God's children, and we have the responsibility to help people, no matter where they are."

For information about Rotary District 7350, go to on the Web. For information about PolioPlus, go to on the Web.

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