By Urs Herzog, past governor of District 1980 (Switzerland) and a polio survivor
This week marks ten years since the World Health Organization certified the European region polio-free. As a Rotarian and a polio survivor, I celebrate how far we’ve come, and recognize the work that still lies ahead to make sure no child suffers from polio again. I was infected with polio at the age of 8 – the year when the polio vaccination was first introduced in Switzerland. Once I contracted the disease, I felt very tired and no longer had the energy to keep up with the rest of my family, even during a walk. Soon, my entire right leg was weak and partially paralyzed. I spent weeks in the hospital, receiving numerous treatments and multiple surgeries on my right foot. Because of polio, I abandoned my childhood dream of playing sports and becoming a pilot.Although it was too late for me, the advent of the polio vaccine in the 1950s meant that the terrible disease that brought suffering to so many families could finally be beaten. It meant that the years of children in Europe becoming seriously ill and even dying from polio could now be placed firmly in the past. It meant that children affected by polio would no longer have to live isolated in small rooms, away from their families, who previously could only greet them from behind glass. What a joy to be vaccinated and to save a child’s life! For years people recognized the privilege of living polio-free, but today that privilege is at risk of being forgotten. We should remain grateful for this privilege and always remember that for too many children in this world, vaccination is not still certain. In some countries children still suffer from polio or even die. Until polio is eradicated everywhere, unvaccinated children remain at risk. This became clear in 2010, when an outbreak in Tajikistan caused nearly 500 polio cases, and put the region at risk. Many years after polio led me to spend long weeks in the hospital, I became a surgeon myself, and fulfilled my wish to work in Africa, where polio still threatens the lives of children every day. In the late 1970s, when Rotary launched polio immunization campaigns, nobody imagined polio eradication would become one of the largest-ever health initiatives originating from the private sector. With our partners, WHO, UNICEF, CDC and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and with support of many governments, I hope we will soon mark the anniversary of a polio-free world.