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This close: Rotary clubs observe World Polio Day as disease nears eradication

Rotarians (from left) Chris Blasius, Linda Yde, Gorden Hedahl, Heather Logelin and Terry McKay pose Oct. 19, 2017, outside Ezekiel Lutheran Church in River Falls, Wis. Rotary Clubs around the world observed End Polio Day held Oct. 24. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Gorden Hedahl of River Falls administers an oral polio vaccine to a young girl in February 2010 as part of a Rotary Group Study Exchange in India. Photo courtesy Gorden Hedahl2 / 2

River Falls Rotarians Gorden Hedahl and Linda Yde said they remember what it was like to live under the spectre of polio and iron lung machines.

"I remember people standing in line to get the shots in the late-50s," said Hedahl, who was 10 years old when the polio vaccine was developed. A couple of his classmates contracted the disease as children.

If trends continue, Hedahl and Yde will see polio eradicated for good.

Area Rotary clubs observed World Polio Day on Tuesday, Oct. 24. Part of the message this year is just how close the world is to wiping out the disease.

"There are only two countries now that have cases of polio and the numbers are down to the single digits this year," Hedahl said.

There were three countries with reported cases of polio in 2016: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan have had cases in 2017, according to the World Health Organization. It takes three years of no reported cases for a country to be declared polio-free.

Rotary International joined the effort to combat polio in 1979 with a program to immunize children in the Philippines. To date, Rotarians have helped immunize 2.5 billion children in more than a hundred countries, according to the organization's website.

The infectious disease, caused by the poliovirus, can infect the brain and spinal cord, leading to weakness or paralysis in arms and legs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Polio was eradicated in the Americas by 1994. Rotary and partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have been working since to finish off the disease in the rest of the world. The other GPEI partners are the the World Health Organization, CDC, United Nations Children's Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

River Falls Rotary Club President Heather Logelin said the inclusion of the Gates Foundation has been a boon to the initiative. The foundation matches $2 for every dollar Rotary commits to polio eradication.

"Rotary has committed to raising $50 million a year for the next three years, and then the Gates Foundation will donate double that," Logelin said.

The polio vaccine is relatively inexpensive per dose, but money is needed for awareness campaigns in countries as well as mobilizing health care professionals and volunteers, she added.

Spreading the message

Hedahl was part of a Rotary trip to India in 2010 that included administering the polio vaccine to children. He recalls grandparents bringing a day-old baby to get vaccinated — a sign the people there understood the importance of the vaccine.

"It was incredible to watch them line up with their kids," he said. "To participate in that was very moving."

The entire public — not just Rotarians — is encouraged to visit the End Polio Now website, www.endpolio.org, to learn more and contribute to eradicating the disease, Logelin said.

"It really is something that everyone can be a part of."

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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