‘I woke up and I couldn’t walk’: This is the polio that should become just a memory

World famous Israeli violinist Itzhak Pearlman was infected with polio at the age of four, severely restricting his ability to walk, but thankfully spared his hands.

A DOCTOR and a professor of rehabilitation help a man at a school of medicine (photo credit: REUTERS)
A DOCTOR and a professor of rehabilitation help a man at a school of medicine
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the age of four, I quickly had to come to terms with the devastating reality of contracting polio. I was born in Israel in 1945, but it would be another decade before the country began a national immunization program.
I was very lucky in making a good recovery and learning to walk with crutches. While the virus made normal use of my legs impossible, my hands were spared, and I could pursue a long and successful career as a violinist, doing what I love. I am blessed as a husband and the father of five healthy children.
If you are reading this article, you are probably fortunate enough to live in a country that has eradicated polio. Growing up, you received the vaccine that protects children from this crippling and potentially fatal disease.
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Effective vaccines have made polio a receding memory in most of the developed world. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. With an effective vaccine against all strains of polio, no child should suffer from a lifetime affliction that is entirely preventable, but it still infects and paralyzes children in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Many young Israelis may be surprised to learn that polio is still endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, and could spread to other countries if left unchecked.
On the occasion of World Immunization Week, we are close to making history. Thanks to the work of Rotary International and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), polio cases have been reduced by 99 percent worldwide. More than 2 billion children in 122 countries have been immunized since the initiative started in 1988. Polio is close to becoming only the second disease after smallpox to be banished to our past.
In 1988, more than 350,000 people were stricken by polio every year, and last year the number of new cases globally was below 400. The latest statistics are cause for optimism, with half the number of polio cases reported by the end of March 2015 compared to the same period last year. Nigeria has suffered no new polio cases for eight months, and the African continent is on the verge of ending polio.
However, this downward trend could be reversed if we do not act decisively to eradicate the disease. Polio has reemerged in countries where it had been stopped, including Israel in 2013. Every child is at risk as long as the virus has not been eradicated globally.
When asked for advice about playing the violin, I tell my students to practice their music one bar at a time.
Something learned slowly is forgotten slowly. Overcoming cultural barriers to immunization can also be a slow process, but the results are not easily forgotten.
The oral vaccine against polio is elegantly simple. A volunteer with no medical expertise can administer it swiftly, mitigating the barriers of weak health systems, poor infrastructure and conflict. Just two drops in place of two tears streaming down the face of a child suffering needlessly.
It takes just 60 cents to vaccinate a child and change their life forever. We need to raise another $1 billion to help the GPEI carry out the final stage of its strategy to completely eradicate polio.
Through the “End Polio Now: Make History Today” campaign, every dollar Rotary contributes to polio eradication will be matched two-to-one by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Every dollar you donate will be tripled. I want to see people moved to tears by my music, not by the pain of polio. I hope that the next time I pick up my violin to perform, I will do so in the knowledge that you have joined me in the campaign to end polio now.
The writer is a violinist and Rotary Polio Ambassador.