By Jong-Geun Lee, District 3730 PolioPlus subcommittee chair and member of the Rotary Club of Wonju, Korea
I was born in a rural village in southern Korea the year after the Korean War ended. I contracted polio when I was 9 months old. I had a fever for several days and both my legs became paralyzed. My parents were teachers but had little knowledge of polio, so they relied on superstition and prayer to confront my illness. It wasn’t until I was two years old that I was finally diagnosed with polio.
I needed crutches to walk but was a cheerful and active child with many friends in the village. My younger brother carried my bag to school and back. If my classroom was not on the ground floor, my fellow students would carry me up the steps on their backs. At the time, we lived in a rented house on a hill near the school. My friends would carry me home. Even with all this help, I would fall often when my walking device became loose or the crutches caught on something, so I devoted myself to studying.
Sometimes I catch myself admiring my daughter as she reads a book at bedtime or does her math homework. These are skills we have come to expect from a child at her age. However, my memories as a young girl living with a disability from polio in Somalia are quite different.
I remember every morning I would wake at the peak of dawn, brush my teeth, comb my hair and change for the day. I then would sit outside our front door and watch as children from my neighborhood walk to school with their thermos full of water and school bags on their backs. I would wave to them with a smile but internally I was crushed.
As the mother of a beautiful, happy, baby boy, I’ve been only too happy to share so many “firsts” with my husband and son.
From bath time to tummy time to bedtime stories, we recognize the importance of every milestone moment and experience, including those that are less than enjoyable for baby Abe – including routine immunization.
Perhaps because I work at Rotary International, I am particularly attuned to the important role immunization plays in protecting against vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio. This is why my husband and I have been laser-focused on scheduling Abe for his routine immunization appointments (of which polio immunization is an essential component). Sticking to Illinois’ routine immunization schedule is critical to protect Abe’s health and necessary to ensure he can attend daycare.
Rotary members have been at the center of the worldwide effort to eradicate polio for more than three decades. Rotary launched PolioPlus in 1985 and helped found the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988. At that time, wild poliovirus paralyzed hundreds of children every day, with an estimated 350,000 polio cases across more than 125 countries in one year. Since then, cases have plummeted more than 99.9%, sparing more than 20 million people from paralysis.
But as recent polio detections have revealed, polio remains a threat everywhere as long as it exists anywhere. In the days and weeks leading up to World Polio Day, 24 October, Rotary members around the world are holding events to raise awareness of the need to End Polio Now. Below are a few of those efforts.
I was a typical, energetic four-year old in South Africa, running around our house with visions of my hero, long distance runner Jan Barnard, in my head when I felt something wrong. I ran inside and told my mother, “I have a dripping tap in my chest.” This was my way of describing what I felt, my heart skipping beats now and again. My mom, Christine, pressed an ear to my chest and called our general practitioner.
That would be the last day I would run imaginary races with Barnard. I had contracted spino-bulbar polio, which destroys neurons in the brainstem causing respiratory or cardiac failure. I was given less than a 2% chance of survival. This was in 1955, during a polio epidemic in South Africa, months before the Salk Vaccine was declared safe and effective.