Reporter ANTONY CLAY meets Rotary Club members who have been part of the battle against the debilitating disease of polio.
Millions have been struck down with polio, and many thousands have died, but now — largely thanks to Rotary International — the disease is set to disappear forever.
Once a worldwide scourge, the virus — which can cause muscle weakening, paralysis and even death — now only exists in small regions of two countries. Within years it could be no more.
Rotary International, the umbrella organisation for all 34,000 clubs around the world, started its fight against polio in 1979 but since then has teamed up with bodies such as the World Health Organization, Unicef, governments and even billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to inoculate people across the globe.
The success of the fight against polio is clear: three billion children in 122 countries inoculated and the incidence of polio across the world falling from 350,000 cases in 1985 to 144 in the last year.
Rotarians want that figure to be zero.
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Members of the borough’s two Rotary clubs — Rotherham and Rotherham Sitwell — will be marking World Polio Day on October 24 by lighting up the minster in purple, the colour of the campaign, and holding a special event at Sitwell Golf Club to mark the success in fighting the disease.
Local Rotarians and residents have backed the fundraising bid to help provide the billions needed to inoculate against polio.
Christopher Croker (right), chairman of Rotherham Sitwell’s foundation and international committee, said that as well as donating to the cause, Rotarians have held events such as education sessions for the public.
“It’s amazing how many young people have not heard of polio,” he said.
“But if there is polio anywhere, there is polio everywhere. I notice that statement is also being used for Covid.”
Rotherham Sitwell president Trish Lister added that End Polio Now packs created by a Doncaster Rotarian have been sent to schools across the area. She said that schools such as Sitwell Junior School had given good feedback.
Trish added: “There are many forgotten diseases because of the coronavirus pandemic but with polio if we lose our grip now all will be lost.”
Tom Hunt, Rotary District 1220 foundation chairman and polio champion, said that Nigeria has become the most recent country to see polio eradicated, leaving the entire African continent free of the disease.
He said: “This would not have been done if Rotary had not taken it on board but we are not good at shouting about it.
“In 1979, Rotary decided to raise some funds and ended up with $10.5 million. They started the Health, Hunger and Humanity Fund but weren’t sure what to do with it. They chose the Philippines and inoculated six million children against polio there.
“Rotarians put plans in place in 1985 to eradicate polio and other diseases which led to the creation of End Polio Now.
“Across the whole of Rotary, including 1,800 clubs in the UK, all will be doing something to help fundraising. There are 34,000 clubs in the world with 1.2 million members.
“The majority of people don’t know or think about polio. They don’t know what Rotary has done. The general public need educating about what polio did.
“Rotary have not given up in the fight against polio and that’s the key, I think. The plan was to eradicate polio in ten years and now we are in year 37.
“They are pushing on the fight in the next 12 months but the real problem is that the last two places where it exists are so remote and we have to get permission from tribal elders to do the inoculations. But it is at government level. Then we have to wait for three years before declaring the countries are free.
“Once we have rid the world of polio, Rotary might well take on malaria.”
Rotherham club president John Box, who was afflicted with polio as a child, said that for all money raised by individual clubs, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offers double the amount.
He said that the Gates became involved because a family member had the condition and wore braces.
Mr Box said that in the UK there are around 120,000 people who have been impacted by polio to varying degrees.
TV cook Mary Berry had polio which affected her left arm. TV presenter and paralympian Ade Adepitan, who uses a wheelchair, is a Rotary ambassador raising awareness of polio, as are singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo and supermodel Isabeli Fontana.
Mr Box said that both Rotary clubs in Rotherham are involved in preparations for the event on October 24 which will see Rotherham MP Sarah Champion and the Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire joining a service at Rotherham Minster. Afterwards there will be a reception at Sitwell Golf Club, at which Mr Box and Mr Hunt will hold a question and answer session.
Mr Box said that more than a dozen local businesses had backed the event by agreeing to sponsor it.
He added: “It’s very heartening. There was not one business that declined to make some sort of contribution.”
Last October, Rotarians got together in Rotherham to light up the town hall in purple to spread the End Polio Now message.
Dr Jill Bethell, district governor of Rotary District 1220, said that it was important to continue the fight to finally get rid of polio.
She said: “I had a school friend who at 13 years old was very severely affected by paralytic polio, and have a great concern to see polio eradicated from the whole of our world.
“No one, especially a child, should be at risk from catching it, and living with the results of it.
“I’m a retired GP, and spent my medical lifetime making sure that everyone knew of the great need to be protected from polio, so that it couldn’t spread, and so would be eradicated.”
What is polio?
POLIOMYELITIS, commonly known as polio, is described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a highly infectious viral disease” which invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis in a matter of hours. There is no cure but there are treatments to alleviate symptoms.
Symptoms differ. Non-paralytic polio has flu-like symptoms. Paralytic polio leads to severe muscle weakness and pain, and floppy and loose limbs. There is a loss of reflexes.
Polio most commonly effects children under six years old. The majority (90 per cent) who catch it never display any significant symptoms.
Doctors are now learning about post-polio syndrome which can produce symptoms in people who have had polio after 15-60 years. It can decrease mobility, cause muscle weakness and impact on sleep.
The WHO says that polio is spread through person-to-person contact. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. It is then shed into the environment through faeces where it can spread rapidly. If a sufficient number of children are fully immunised against polio, the virus dies out.
“I never let battle I had dampen enthusiasm for living life to the full”
ROTARIAN John Box has more reason than most to back the Rotary International campaign to eradicate polio.
He was struck down with the disease at the age of two but instead of being beaten by it has tried to educate people about the condition.
He became ill after a family holiday and spent many years in hospital undergoing gruelling medical treatment.
John, president of Rotherham Rotary Club, was admitted to Rivelin Valley Hospital in Sheffield in late August 1948 and spent five years there — with visits allowed only fortnightly and occasional home trips.
“There was a feeling that people needed isolating,” said John. “I spent 18 months lying on a half body plaster cast.
“The whole experience left me with no use of the left leg and reduced mobility of the right leg, a situation that has prevailed throughout my life.”
John developed polio symptoms following a family holiday to Scarborough.
“I went into the sea as all children do,” he said. “The polio virus grows in sewage and through that was transmitted through my body and into my nervous system.
“I developed symptoms that established that I had contracted the polio virus. That must have been a most catastrophic time for my parents.”
John never allowed polio to beat him — he went to university and developed his architectural career.
He became a Rotary ambassador for polio, and district assistant governor, giving talks throughout the UK and beyond, as well as becoming a vice president for British Junior Chamber in the 1980s which took him to countries such as Japan and South Korea.
John said: “I went through a period in my life when I thought ‘I will get better’. I was wrong.
“I have no bitterness as to having polio. One of the blessings for me was catching polio at two-and-a-half, so I never knew any other life.
“I loathe, detest and deplore negativity. I have got to be pragmatic about it.
“I never allowed what the disease did to me to dampen my enthusiasm to live my life to the full.”
He has been presented with the People of Action Polio Award.