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.
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.