Pizza for Polio: We Can All Help Eradicate Polio
A large metal tube painted a dull green, is set upon wheeled legs in the corner of a room. It is a bulky and awkward contraption, a little less than a meter in diameter and about two meters long. A slight, rhythmic, mechanical whoosh of air can be heard emanating from it as bellows push and pull the atmosphere within. At one end of the tube, a person’s head, propped on a thin pillow and headrest, pokes out. Above them, a mirror, like a sunshade, is suspended above and allows them to see who might be coming up behind them. This is the Iron Lung, the western world’s pop culture icon of the fight against Polio. A fight that was largely won in wealthy, developed nations during the 1950s and 60s.
Polio is a virus that attacks the central nervous system and is particularly dangerous to young children. Most people infected with the virus don’t even realize they have it and continue to spread it as symptoms tend to be nonexistent or mimic mild flu. But the disease is deadly to some, causing paralysis. The patient will suffocate and die without equipment to breathe for them until their body is able to fight off the virus and recover. The iconic Iron Lung provided the ability to wait out the disease for many people in developed nations. At the start of the 20th century, Polio was paralyzing nearly 100,000 children per year around the world. Fortunately, today most people are far removed from the realities of Polio. It has been nearly eradicated around the world, and it’s one of those diseases most people now associate with lesser developed and impoverished countries.
Even though the Iron Lung survives in our collective memories as the primary tool used to fight Polio, it was not the weapon that ultimately defeated the virus. It took the advent of a vaccine which was then administered to about 99% of the population in industrialized countries to finally knock it out and remove it from these nations. However, the virus still lived and was common in other areas of the world where a lack of vaccinations, combined with unsafe drinking water, allowed it to continue to infect people. This was the situation until the battle against Polio was finally brought to all countries, regardless of their wealth.
By the 1970s it was understood that the virus was common in less developed areas of the world, and work began amongst a number of organizations to bring vaccinations to those areas. 1988 saw the culmination of those efforts as Rotary International became a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
Their work started in the Philippines and eventually spread to other parts of the world. Alysson Storey, the Interim Chair for Polio Eradication at the Rotary Club of Chatham, provided an update on the current Polio situation. “We have basically reduced the cases around the world by 99.9% which is amazing. It’s still endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan because the countries are not safe for Polio volunteers and vaccination teams to get in there. But that is what Rotary International, as an organization, has been working on. Every club is expected to contribute to that in some way.”
Rotary International currently has nearly 1.2 million members worldwide. Local clubs exist under the international banner in cities and towns across the world. There are seven Rotary Clubs in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. Located in Blenheim, Wallaceburg, Ridgetown, Dresden, Tilbury, and two in Chatham, they are made up of people from all walks of life who, “basically get together to address issues and solve problems, both in their own communities and around the world,” according to Alysson.
While clubs also work on local projects, it is the eradication of Polio that is the uniting goal across the movement. With World Polio Day falling on Saturday, October 24 this year, two of Chatham-Kent’s local clubs (the Rotary Club of Tilbury and the Rotary Club of Chatham) are working together to promote awareness of the battle against the disease, and to raise money for the fight, through a community event in Tilbury and Chatham called Pizza for Polio.
“Pizza for Polio,” Alysson noted, “is a great way, this year especially, for local businesses to support the health of young kids around the world. Polio is a deadly, infectious disease that most commonly affects kids under the age of five. Anyone can get Polio, but it’s serious when it’s under five. Help kids around the world, and you get to eat pizza! It’s a win-win. And in 2020, when local businesses are really struggling, it’s a great way to support a local business too. It’s threefold this year.
“For many years now the Gates Foundation has usually doubled or quadrupled Rotary donations. We send out funds to the Rotary End Polio Now campaign and then usually the Gates Foundation doubles or quadruples it. Then it goes to the Global Polio Eradication initiative. That’s the group that tackles the vaccinations. They have, essentially, every single Rotarian around the world contributing to that. Over a million people working together on a project to improve global health. Which is pretty cool when you think about it.”
Bringing in vaccinations to this part of the world is not easy. It takes a lot of manpower, as there is not a lot of infrastructure available to speed the vaccine’s distribution. Many of the people are living in war-torn areas and are distrustful of government and outside intervention. It is hard and dangerous work, but worth supporting. “There have been vaccination volunteers who have been killed doing this,” Alysson related.
The work sometimes brings unforeseen benefits in the nations where programs are implemented. “I know in some of the countries in Africa, they used their Polio eradication infrastructure to tackle Covid-19. This infrastructure was already in place because of the Polio vaccination process. They used those same pathways, communication tools, and distribution models to address Covid. Africa has actually done, as a continent, a very good job of keeping Covid-19 from exploding into a massive outbreak. A lot of that is because of the work they have already done with Polio.”
And sometimes those benefits will go to help the Polio fight as well. Alysson related that “Western [University] has been working on, for lack of a better term, a super deluxe and small in physical size, portable but super-technologically advanced, cooler. You have to keep these vaccinations at a certain low temperature, including the polio vaccine. It needs to be kept in a cooler and kept quite cold. In countries in Africa, it’s not cold. It’s a challenge. Often we have very basic coolers. At Western, one of their PhDs is working on that right now. And I’m thinking that’s actually going to have huge implications for other health challenges like Polio. We are helping each other in a way. There are advances for the Covid vaccine, and addressing that will actually help other global initiatives like Polio. And then – Polio has already helped with Covid. None of this exists in a vacuum.”
This brings the conversation back around to the local Rotary Club of Chatham again. “Keith [Koke] was our rockstar on all things Polio. He was very active in the global organization. He and his wife went on vaccination service trips. They went to different countries and vaccinated people. He was a pipeline of information. Losing Keith [who passed away in May] was a huge blow for our club on that front.” But he leaves a rich legacy which Alysson is eager to continue. “Our club, since the Polio Eradication Campaign began, has raised over $250,000 which is pretty awesome. Every dollar counts, literally. Vaccines are basically $3.00. If you donated a dollar, you would literally save the life of a child.
“We have come so far, which is amazing. It’s the last few steps that have been really tough. It doesn’t mean we are going to stop, because we’re not. I imagine that 30 years ago they thought by 2020, which would have seemed like a date way in the future – at that point, they might have thought it would be gone by then, but a lot of things happened in that period of time no one could have predicted. Rotarians are extremely proud of the progress that’s been made, but we’re not there yet.”
Anyone who wants to support this fundraiser can. It’s as easy as ordering a pizza. “This is our 6th year for Pizza for Polio. This is all voluntary donations from the local businesses,” she noted. Locations in Tilbury will be participating on Saturday, October 24, with the Chatham locations taking part on Wednesday, October 28.
The battle to eradicate Polio is not won. It’s been a long journey, but the finish line is finally in sight. Humanity is being offered a rare opportunity to come together and once more make a disease go away. It’s a race that is nearly won, but help is needed to get over the finish line. So, why not order a pizza on one of those two days? You get pizza, which is a happy thing. Local businesses get customers. And the donations you enable local businesses to make will save lives. Pizza for Polio – leveraging the power of the pizza-pie to do good around the world. Please order from one of the following places to participate.
Pizza for Polio 2020 Participants
Tilbury: Saturday, October 24
Late Addition: Pinnell’s Bakery will be doing Doughnuts for Polio on Saturday as well for the Rotary Club of Ridgetown.
For further reading: 10 Facts about Polio Eradication
Iron Lung photo in Public Domain. Keith Koke photo courtesy of Rotary Club of Chatham. All other photos courtesy of Rotary International