Valley Views: Hopes for global health | News

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Two main fears pervaded my 1950s childhood: Nuclear bombs and catching polio. A younger boy at school caught the dreaded disease and returned a few months later with braces on his legs.

But the polio fear was put to rest on a lovely spring evening when my family walked a few blocks to the nearest grammar school to receive sugar cubes laced with polio vaccine. I don’t remember my parents specifically voicing their fears but, looking back, I can well imagine their relief.

Now a press release from Livermore Rotary informs me that the World Health Organization announced Aug. 25 that polio has been eradicated in Africa. The story of fighting polio is inspiring because it is the tale of global cooperation, which one can only hope will take place against COVID-19.

Rotary International clubs have partnered for decades working to eradicate polio, and local chapters have done endless fundraising plus sent volunteers to countries around the world to help with the efforts.

Rotarian Rich Bennett, who lives in Livermore, has gone to Ghana five or six times, starting in 1998 on his club’s first mission to give polio vaccine drops to children under 5. On that trip, he was accompanied by his wife and two sons, a seventh-grader and a high school freshman.

The Rotary district that includes the Tri-Valley had raised $175,000, which was matched by the Rotary Foundation, to eradicate polio in Ghana, Bennett remembered. Ahead of the Rotarians’ visit, an extensive advertising campaign took place to familiarize the population with the upcoming National Immunization Day.

“We flew into Amsterdam, then we flew into Ghana,” Bennett recalled. “What’s interesting is the Ghanaians were so happy to have us there. They treated us extremely well.”

Shortly after arriving, the visiting Rotarians had an indoctrination that included local customs so they would know how not to offend. On the big day, the visitors spread throughout the country to participate in the vaccination effort.

“All four of us went into separate cars, which goes to show you how much we trust Rotarians,” Bennett said. “We went into little villages, and they were all set up.”

He said the experience was upbeat for most but one Rotarian recounted a sad tale. A woman came in with a baby on her back and two children over 5. Although the vaccine was intended for younger ages, she insisted they be given the drops and was accommodated. When they also offered drops for the baby, she replied that the baby already had polio.

“When I went back the following year, three Interact students went with me,” Bennett said. “They sent us to a pretty large village, and they had all the women bring their children to the church, and they all sat down in rows. I was put on the stage. The elders were all there. This was a big occasion.”

Row by row the drops were given, and Bennett had also requested that the students who accompanied him had the chance to actually administer the vaccine.

One good memory he shared was when he had two hours to wait for his transportation and a woman welcomed him to wait inside her hut.

“She was so proud,” he remembered. “This was her house, even though it was a straw hut. She was dressed in her Sunday best and preparing food for a party that night.”

Bennett said the effects of polio were visible in the Ghanaian population out and about.

“Most of them are left crippled,” he said. “They are called ‘crawlers,’ and you would see them on their way around.”

There were an estimated 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was created in 1988. This partnership between Rotary International, WHO, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, eventually helped immunize more than 2.5 billion children against polio, which is now considered to be eradicated everywhere in the world except Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A global effort to rid the work of smallpox also worked, with its last case diagnosed in 1977; WHO certified it eradicated in 1980. Now polio is close.

Let’s remember that we can conquer diseases by working together, as we continue the fight against COVID-19.

Editor’s note: Dolores Fox Ciardelli is Tri-Valley Life editor for the Pleasanton Weekly. Her column, “Valley Views,” appears in the paper on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.

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