Thursday, April 17, 2008

Polio Daddy


Walking through downtown Evanston, Illinois, I was somewhat astonished to come upon the statue above. What is this obviously quite modern, representational sculpture?

The plaque explains. This statue honors the generous, laborious efforts of Rotary International to raise funds to eradicate polio. Rotarians -- those business-oriented "service" clubs that hold breakfasts for their clubby, stereotypically male, members -- committed themselves to combating the disease in 1985 and helped make possible huge programs of vaccination all over the world.

Father Rotarian does seem to be a 1950s Daddy.

And those children -- do kids who look like these ever look with such trust and confidence at a guy who looks like that?

We don't think much about polio in the United States nowadays. I'm old enough to have been part of the generation that wasn't allowed to go to public swimming pools in the summer for fear of the disease. Some of our classmates succumbed; a few were crippled, depending on iron lungs and leg braces for their survival. We were a less litigious society in the 1950s. Millions of parents let their kids be guinea pigs in vaccine trials, in the earnest hope that the drugs we took would prevent the disease. The vaccines worked; polio is unknown today in the United States.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the disease was the AIDS of its day; the Rotary-sponsored video at this link tells the story well.

At the beginning of the 21st century, there was reason to hope that polio might follow small pox as a scourge made extinct by worldwide public health measures, especially aggressive universal vaccination of children. But this has not come about. Instead, the world is seeing a resurgence of the disease in Pakistan, India, and especially Nigeria.

In Nigeria, the diseases thrives, with 1,116 reported cases in 2006. World Health Organization officials blame the Nigerian polio outbreak on politically inspired fears of Western medicine.

KANO, Nigeria - For Ramatu Garba, the polio vaccine is part of an evil conspiracy hatched in the West to sterilize Nigerian girls.

"Allah used Muslim scientists to expose the Western plot of using polio vaccines to reduce our population," said the 28-year-old Muslim food vendor in Kano.

Each time health teams have tried to vaccinate her daughter, Garba has refused.

It's been three years since local politicians began a campaign of fear and rumor, claiming the polio vaccine would sterilize children. Those unfounded fears still persist today, and it's this myth, and others like it, that are largely responsible for the spread of polio into almost two dozen other countries where it was once stamped out.

"The world is still paying the price for what happened in Nigeria in 2003," said Dr. David Heymann, the top official for polio eradication with the World Health Organization. Most of the new infections in other countries can be traced to Nigeria.

Sept. 25, 2006

Obviously this is tragic. And wrong. And horrible.

But I can't help wondering if the spirit of "Father knows best" that animates the Rotarian statue here in Evanston doesn't somehow percolate through to vaccine recipients around the world, inspiring some of those fears that are condemning more and more children. Patronizing kills sometimes, literally.


Nell said...

The menacing subtext of "we know best" is amplified when we're actually making war on two large Islamic countries and threatening to spread it to several others... Can't think it's a coincidence that 2003 was the year these rumors, which no doubt had existed for years, gained serious traction.

Ed said...

This article seems to be dripping with sarcasm and bitterness directed at group that helped to nearly wipe out a deadly disease. Yes it's an 'old boys club,' but this is one of those things they did sincerely and did fairly well. Appreciation and respect would be appropriate. Oh, and then it was great how you blamed them for its resurgence. Nice.

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