In the mid- 1980’s 350,000 children around the world were stricken with polio each year. That is more children than live in the entire state of Maine. Fortunately, polio had been almost eradicated here by then. But not so in the rest of world.

In fact, it still has not been eradicated. There is still one tenacious strain of the virus still out there. It lurks in the water and sewers of very poor regions in three countries- Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. It also happens to be the strain that likes to travel, and last year it popped up in civil war torn Syria. It hitchhiked its way to Brazil, too, grabbing a ride to Sao Paulo from Equatorial Guinea, Africa for the soccer World Cup. It only made it to the sewer though, and has not infected any humans. Brazil's last national immunization campaign was conducted a year ago and coverage in Sao Paulo state has been higher than 95 percent, the World Health Organization said, adding: "The high immunity appears to have prevented transmission."


Pakistan is the toughest place to knock down the virus. The locals don’t trust westerners, and there were reports of attacks last year on relief workers trying to immunize children. The government is working with Rotary Leadership to plan immunization days, but the rebels don’t get along all that well with the government. Immunization teams did catch an ironic break. Two hundred thousand refugees were driven out of their mountain homes by the rebel violence, and the refugee camps happened to be in safer areas accessible to the teams. They were able to immunized thousands of children, a silver lining of sorts in a tragic story.


In the late 1980’s, the World Health Organization approached Rotary, or perhaps the other way around depending on who is telling the story. Rotary had manpower and could raise money, which would be necessary to immunize the millions and millions of people in 126 countries that had yet to conquer polio. It has spent almost $850 million so far, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have kicked in another $350 million, most recently adding a 2:1 challenge match. The vaccine itself costs only about 50 or 60 cents. But it had to be refrigerated, or it’s ineffective. It also has to be delivered to everyone at the same time or the virus just hangs out in an unwitting host until another chance to flare up comes along. It takes thousands of volunteers to pull that off. That is why Rotary has had so much success in the first 121 countries. The US, Canadian and some other governments are in, too, and it is estimated that before it is over the world will have spent $4 billion on polio.


Rotarians and other volunteers converge on a target region in the space of 3 or 4 days, called National Immunization Days (NID). They take the vaccine in insulated coolers to remote villages and neighborhoods and go door to door, seeking to immunize every child. Not all locals appreciate or trust the outsiders, and it often requires someone form the area to lead the team. The team usually has to go back to the house multiple times. When they immunize a child, they use an indelible ink to mark her pinkie fingernail. That way, they know who still needs to be done. The purple pinkie has become a symbol of an NID and the fight to eradicate polio. Some clubs, including Scarborough, have done “Purple Pinkie” fundraisers, where people donate money to have their pinkie painted purple. (They don’t get the vaccine though.)


There were 224 cases of polio reported in the latest stats: 10 in Afghanistan, 6 in Nigeria and 204 in Pakistan. Rotary believes that by 2016 it will be zero. The world will be free of polio, and Rotary will move on to the next project.