In 1954, a 10-year-old Macon boy named Al Baggarly had just returned home after playing with friends when he started feeling severe pain in both legs. Doctors offered a grim diagnosis: Baggarly was infected with a potentially fatal virus called polio
For more than a century, the disease struck fear in the hearts of Americans. Outbreaks in the 1940s and 1950s crippled as many as 35,000 people a year.
But as Baggarly was battling the disease in an Atlanta hospital, scientists were perfecting a polio vaccine that would save lives and prevent untold suffering.
The vaccine has been so successful that many people assume polio has been eliminated. Some young people have never even heard of the disease.
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But the job isn’t done yet: Polio still persists in parts of the world.
Over 30 years ago, a group of Rotarians started Polio Plus to eradicate polio. At that time, there were hundreds of thousands of children stricken by the disease and the number was growing by 1,000 victims every day. In the U.S., polio has been eliminated thanks to widespread vaccination. However, the virus is still a risk because it has been brought into this country by travelers from other parts of the world.
To put an end to polio, a global initiative that includes Rotary, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed billions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to mass immunization projects in 122 countries.
Today, because of this global partnership, there are only three countries where polio survives: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Even though the battle to eradicate polio is so close to victory, those regions are a huge challenge because of geographic isolation, armed conflicts and cultural barriers.
As Rotary International President Barry Rassin says, “Consider the logistics of polio eradication. There are 360,000 babies born every single day in the world. To be fully protected against polio, each of them must be vaccinated not just once, but several times. The only way to achieve eradication is through the massive and coordinated scale on which we are now working: using a vast network of systems to deliver about 430 million doses of vaccine every year, via mass immunization campaigns.”
More than a million Rotarians worldwide are donating their time and personal resources. I am one of more than 500 Rotarians in Middle Georgia who participates in this Rotary effort, supporting the Polio Plus campaign and recognizing World Polio Day. On Wednesday, there will be a livestream broadcast with the latest progress and challenges. Tune in at www.endpolio.org/world-polio-day.
On Nov. 3, Rotary will sponsor Ride to End Polio in Perry, where you can ride your bike to raise funds for the elimination of polio. Get involved with Rotary at www.endpolio.org and take part in the bike ride by visiting www.perryrotary.org.
Young Al Baggarly endured months in a hospital ward, years of painful therapy and a metal leg brace until the ninth grade. Now at age 75, a longtime Rotary member and business owner with great-grandchildren, Baggarly considers himself lucky that he wasn’t one of the thousands killed or crippled by the disease even though he is mindful of the lingering effects of post-polio syndrome.
The world is “this close” to putting an end to polio. The only way to finish the job is to give it everything we have. It’s expensive. It is a task of breathtaking ambition and scope. But we are so near the finish line that we must not give up.
Tom Woodbery is a resident of Macon and member of the Rotary Club of Downtown Macon.