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Rotary club perseveres in fight to end polio worldwide

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Held in check in the United States for more than 30 years, polio remains a threat to human health in some pockets of the world — and two local Rotarians are working to get that message heard.

The Columbus Sunrise Rotary is dedicated to the Rotary International’s ideal of “service above self” to improve the quality of life for millions living in poverty worldwide.

With 1.2 million members, Rotary’s humanitarian missions include eradication of this largely forgotten disease.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes polio as a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease. The CDC said there is no cure for polio, but there are safe and effective vaccines. Therefore, the strategy to eradicate polio is based on preventing infection by immunizing every child to stop transmission and ultimately make the world polio-free.

Toward that end, the Rotary in 1985 established the Polio

Plus program. Since that time, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria remain the only countries where polio is endemic.

“It’s been in the works so long, and it’s so close,” 74-year-old Rotarian Charles Dewey said of the eradication effort. “What’s important at this stage is finishing it and getting it gone, so you don’t have to worry about polio again.”

Dewey joined the Columbus Sunrise Rotary in 2000 and began working on the polio effort, traveling abroad to help with National Immunization Days.

In 2006, he spent 10 days in Niger working nearly 11 hours a day, walking from hut to hut immunizing children. Unlike inoculations stateside, the polio immunization process consists of liquid drops administered orally, Dewey said. Each bottle containing 40 drops immunizes 20 children, he said.

Traveling to Nigeria in 2008, Dewey found that children generally were contracting polio through unsanitary conditions. Infection among adults is fairly rare, he said. But once children become ill, it is difficult for them to survive.

Karl Kuehner of Columbus became a Rotarian in 2006 after speaking with Dewey about his involvement with Rotary’s effort to rid the world of polio.

“I got really energized and amazed with what polio is all about,” Kuehner said. “I put it on my bucket list to go do that.”

Kuehner traveled to India in 2010 to assist with National Immunization Days efforts in the city of Chandigarh, near the Pakistani border.

The only Hoosier and one of eight Americans in the group of 36 Rotarians, Kuehner said he felt very comfortable working with the local people. As his group traveled door to door, he said the neighborhood children followed them, cheering.

“The thing that really stuck out to me was the friendliness of the people,” 75-year-old Kuehner said. “And how many lived in poor conditions and how satisfied they seemed to be with life. Human nature is, you adapt to your situation.”

Kuehner saw the effects of polio firsthand. Infected children often end up in wheelchairs or on crutches. He viewed many children in the polio wards, placed in traction in efforts to stretch their limbs and counteract the effects of the disease.

“We saw, on a number of occasions, people on the street with missing arms and legs crawling on the ground,” Kuehner said.

Dewey and Kuehner will speak in the Red Room at the Bartholomew County Library at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to raise awareness about polio and the continued importance to eliminate it.

“Unless polio is totally eradicated, people need to be cognizant about it,” Kuehner said. “It only takes one person with polio to come into this country and in contact with someone who is not immunized to bring it back. Don’t go to sleep about this thing until it is completely gone.”

Those who attend the program will hear the men discuss the history of polio, where it is today, and what’s involved in the National Immunization Days and the Rotary’s efforts. Slides taken of the children, activities and environment in endemic countries, such as Niger, also will be shown.

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