Honoring Salk and Sabin by Finishing the Job of Ending Polio

Honoring Salk and Sabin by finishing the job of ending polio | Rotary Voices

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finishing the job of ending polio

Dr. John L. Sever discusses the origins of PolioPlus in this video recorded last year.

The following is an excerpt of an address given by Dr. John L. Sever, vice chair of Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee, to the Innovations in Healthcare Symposium 23 October in New York. The symposium was held to honor Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin on World Polio Day and the 100th anniversary of Salk’s birth.

I had the pleasure of knowing both Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin through our mutual participation at medical meetings, and when they would visit me at my offices and laboratories at the National Institutes of Health.

I remember in particular a medical meeting in Miami Beach, Florida, in the 1960s at which Dr. Sabin and I were both speakers. On the first morning of the meeting, my wife and I came down for breakfast. Dr. Sabin was sitting alone and invited us to join him. He was very excited because physicians in Cuba had reported that they had used the oral polio vaccine in a new way. They gave all of the children in Cuba the vaccine during just a few days, rather than at age specific intervals. They showed that with this approach, they not only protected the children from polio, but they succeeded in eradicated it from Cuba.

Global eradication

This was a wonderful finding and Dr. Sabin was delighted. He advocated it enthusiastically for what he called “The Rapid Elimination and Ultimate Global Eradication of Paralytic Poliomyelitis Caused By Polioviruses.”  It became the basis for the worldwide use of National Immunization Days.

It was Dr. Sabin’s oral polio vaccine used in National Immunization Days that empowered Rotary and our partners to immunize more than two-and-a-half billion children against polio — bringing the virus to the brink of eradication. And it will be Dr. Salk’s injectable, inactivated vaccine, used during the end-game phase of the campaign, that will enable us to slam the door shut once and for all on this terrible disease.

This is a fitting legacy for these two icons of modern medicine.

Beginnings of PolioPlus

Rotary’s involvement in polio eradication began in 1979, when RI’s president Clem Renouf learned that smallpox had just been eradicated and wondered if it might be appropriate for Rotary to use its new humanitarian grants program to take on a comparable goal. I was an active Rotarian and chief of the Infectious Diseases Branch, NINDS, at the National Institutes of Health, at the time, so Renouf asked for my opinion.

I recommended that Rotary establish a program to help immunize the children of the world against polio and eradicate the disease. With Rotary clubs in nearly every country in the world and a total membership then of about one million, I knew our members were well positioned to help public health authorities reach millions of children with the oral polio vaccine.

Since the launch of our PolioPlus program in 1985, in close collaboration with Dr. Sabin, progress against polio has been nothing short of tremendous. In 2013, there were fewer than 420 cases worldwide, a decrease of more than 99 percent. And the wild poliovirus is now endemic to only three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Making history

With the goal so close, we continue to face challenges — armed violence against vaccinators, the rise of new threats such as Ebola, and donor fatigue, to name a few. But we face each of these challenges with the same determination and resiliency that has brought us this far. To our supporters, and especially donor governments, we say: We are truly on the verge of making history.

I am sure that Salk and Sabin would be immensely proud of where we are today: on the threshold of a polio-free world. Their combined genius gave us the tools to eliminate polio once and for all. Today, we owe it to them – and to the world’s children – to get the job done.

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