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We're this close

Posted Saturday, June 9, 2012, at 11:00 AM

In the first half of the 20th century, the mere mention of the word "polio" sent shivers down the spines of every parent in the U.S. It resonated with their kids, too -- at least those of us old enough to understand the concept. Even if we didn't have a true appreciation of the disease, we understood that polio was something we did not want to have.

In 1952, there were more than 57,000 cases of the dread disease reported in the U.S. That was also the year that polio insurance was available for those who could afford it. The Thiel family of Mapleton, Iowa, might have wished they'd purchased it. Of their 14 children, 11 contracted polio, along with their mother. Although nine of the children recovered, two were paralyzed for life.

But help was already on the way. Dr. Jonas Salk, whose original goal had been the development of an influenza vaccine, conducted trials of a killed-virus vaccine in 1954. Beginning with a school in McLean, Virginia, 1.8 million children were vaccinated. It was quickly apparent that the vaccine was very effective.

So with the announcement in 1955 that the trials had proven the effectiveness of the vaccine, the race was on to vaccinate as many children as possible.

Parents breathed a sigh of relief, and the national campaign was wildly successful. In less than a decade, the number of new cases of polio in the U.S. dropped from an average of 35,000 cases per year to 61 cases in 1965. The last known cases were reported in 1993. In the U.S. at least, polio is dead.

With the understanding of a child, I wasn't quite so impressed with Dr. Salk's contribution to the seemingly endless number of shots I was already subjected to.

At the time, we were stationed in Tripoli, Libya -- the same Tripoli that's recently been in the news. Before we set sail aboard the U.S. S. Callan in January 1954, my sister, my brother, my mother and I had been subjected to a parade of vaccinations that were, to say the least, unpleasant. To add to my distress, we were subjected to yearly updates of the same vaccinations for the 2-1/2 years we were there.

And it gets worse.

We lived in the city of Tripoli, not on the grounds of Wheelus Air Base, where my father worked. At some point in early 1955, there was a typhoid epidemic in the city. In true military fashion, and with only a day's warning, all the dependent children were herded into the school's gymnasium for yet another immunization update.

Armed with my World Health Organization immunization record, which I'd begged my mother to give me that morning, I was certain I'd escape at least this time.

But it was not to be.

Rudely brushing aside my protests, the Army technician charged with administering the shots told me it didn't make any difference to him what documents I presented, it was his duty to make sure I got that shot.

In a blind rage, and screaming that I'd rather die of typhoid than get another stick in the arm, I kicked him in the shins and took off running across the gym.

For a brief period, I managed to elude a half-dozen nurses, technicians, teachers and doctors, but they finally cornered me. Still kicking and screaming, I was dragged back to the table with its stacks of needles and vials, held down by two or three of the adults, and vaccinated.

So obviously the news that the polio vaccine was available wasn't good news to me. And it wasn't just the one injection, course. No, no, no... it was a series of three.

I was, to put it mildly, panic-stricken.

My sister, 14 months younger, was among the first group of children to receive the three shots. I eventually had the first two injections, but we were transferred back to the U.S. before I got the third one.

You can assume I wasn't thrilled to hear that I'd have to start the series over again. And so, once we arrived at Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska several months later, I had two more injections. For some reason, I didn't get the third one in that series, either.

I kept quiet about it, figuring no good would come of reminding my mother than I was still short one shot, because to my mind, I surely had had more than enough. But no -- my mother's memory was far too good. And so it was that I finally received three more injections the following year.

Even so, the polio vaccine and I were not quite done.

By the early 1960's, Salk's rival, Dr. Albert Sabin, introduced the oral vaccine in use today. As a military dependent, I was once again marched forward for treatment, but at least this time my skinny little arms were safe.

Surely by now I am well-protected.

And so is most of the rest of the world. The scourge of polio was eliminated in the Western Hemisphere by 1991.

It's not quite dead globally, however. Today, there are still four countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria) where the disease is active. It's easy to remember which countries if you think PAIN.

You no doubt know about the efforts of the March of Dimes in polio eradication. And you may already know that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave more than $1 billion in the continuing effort. What you may not know is that beginning in the 1980s, Rotary International raised $500 million with their Polio PLUS campaign.

Rotary's motto of "Service Above Self," is evident in the active participation by its members in the ongoing struggle to eliminate polio. It's estimated that Rotary has administered the polio vaccine to more than 1 billion people around the globe. And Rotary International is in there pitching again, with a $200 million effort that should prove to be the very last campaign. The motto for the campaign is "We're this close."

My grown-up self is grateful that today's adults and children need have no personal concern about polio. In retrospect, those vaccinations more than 50 years ago don't look so awful. A couple of needle sticks for a lifetime of immunity seems like a fair exchange to me now.

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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