Rotarian Mike Oldham speaks to the Rotary Club of Los Alamos about polio Tuesday from his home in Parker, Colorado. Courtesy photo
BY LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
“Egyptian hieroglyphics showing withered limbs,” began Rotary speaker Mike Oldham, “suggest the presence of the polio virus over 3,000 years ago.” Oldham, a member of a Rotary speakers’ panel on polio, attended the Tuesday, Oct. 20 meeting of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos from his home in Parker, Colorado. Rotary will commemorate World Polio Day on Saturday, Oct. 24.
Polio, also known as poliomyelitis, is a debilitating and sometimes deadly disease caused by a highly contagious virus that affects the central nervous system and can cause temporary or permanent paralysis. It is spread through contact with infected feces or less commonly through droplets from a sneeze or cough of an infected person.
Oldham continued to explain that the medical literature of the 1700s discusses the disease in children and its long-term effects; by the 1900s, especially in the 1930s-1950s, polio exhibited its largest impact worldwide. Many will remember the wheelchairs and “iron lungs” (ventilators) whose haunting images frequented the news of those decades.
In 1988, Rotary International dedicated $250 million to efforts to eradicate polio, a year when 350,000 infections were reported in over 120 countries.
Today Rotary International reports that eradication efforts have reduced wild polio virus infections by 99.9%. Only Pakistan and Afghanistan report active infections, due in large part to the difficulty of vaccinating transient populations, the prevalence of misinformation, and tribal influence and warring factions. Africa was declared polio-free this year, meaning that the continent has not experienced any polio cases for a period of three years as determined by the World Health Organization (WHO). This is a historic accomplishment in the annals of medicine.
Although the polio vaccine, given as a drop on the tongue, only costs approximately $3.00, the costs of eradicating polio remain large. Oldham stated that it is estimated that an investment of $3.27 billion will be needed to eradicate the wild polio virus by 2023, the present goal. Restrictions caused by the Covid-19 virus may delay these efforts. The costs include establishing medical laboratories and hiring qualified personnel to evaluate the presence of disease; monitoring outbreaks and refrigerating the vaccine, which must be at -4 degrees F,
usually kept in dry ice; and surveillance of sewage, which harbors the polio virus.
In addition to fighting polio with its partners–The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, WHO, UNICEF, and others–Rotary’s eradication efforts against polio have had “collateral benefits,”
Oldham explained. Research and methods applied to polio eradication were used as a foundation to fight the Ebola epidemic.
In conclusion, Oldham urged members to “spread the word about polio eradication.” The disease is being successfully eliminated worldwide.
Oldham, a retired attorney, is a graduate of Michigan State University. He has been a Rotarian for 22 years. He and his family have had tragic personal experiences with the devastating effects of polio: Oldham himself contracted the disease when he was 10 years old; his older brother contracted polio as a college student and died within three days of being diagnosed. Oldham focuses many volunteer hours each year serving in ways to help Rotary eradicate polio.
If you would like to donate to PolioPlus, Rotary International’s initiative, you may make tax-deductible donations to LA Rotary 1312, PO Box 986, Los Alamos, NM 87544. If you would like to learn more about Rotary and how you can make a positive difference in the world, please contact President Laura Gonzales, (505) 699-5880 or Membership Chair Skip King, (505) 662-8832.