Consider This
Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Local Rotarian seeks to eradicate polio worldwide

First published:
Sept. 11, 2002

Sitting in the spacious kitchen of local businessman Bill Patchett’s lovely home in Cobourg’s east end, one would not expect to be at the epicentre of a major battle to end a serious disease. The former grocery store owner and fundraiser extrodinaire sits patiently as retired local physician Dr. Bob Scott explains his worldwide effort to raise money for the eradication of polio.

That’s right. Two Cobourg residents are vigorously working on behalf of Rotary International to assist in raising $80 million over the next 12 months. Patchett is charged with helping 55 local Rotary clubs from Peel Region to Belleville raise their share – about $3 million. In Cobourg alone, the group hopes to raise about $75,000.

Cobourg Rotary President Jack Russell is the other person sitting around the table. His sister Janice, the third oldest in a family of seven, contracted polio in 1947, as a very young child. Two other siblings would also get polio, but it was very minor. Janice would spend four months in the hospital. She could not walk and she could not use her right arm. To the family’s relief she responded to treatment. Janice carried on, but was unable to fully use her right arm. For the balance of her life, she would get bad skin rashes. She was raising a family of four children when she learned she had melanoma, a form of cancer. She died in 1993. Jack believes, despite any hard evidence, the polio weakened her immune system, making her more vulnerable to cancer.

These three men speak with passion and commitment. Get ready, our community will be swept up in their call to action.

The global polio eradication initiative is one of the largest public health programs in history. It involves the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF. There are also privately funded organizations such as the United Nations Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The list goes on.

Dr. Scott is chairman of the polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force; a committee made up of representatives from these organizations. He travels around the world on behalf of this international task force visiting health ministers and heads of state asking for donations. The list of government donors is as long as it is impressive.

The plan is to wipe out polio, by 2005. Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus. It can strike at any age, but affects mainly children under three (over 50% of all cases). The disease causes paralysis, which is almost always permanent. In the most severe cases polio can lead to death by asphyxiation. Worldwide, the number of polio cases has dropped, from about 350,000 cases in 125 countries in 1988 to 480 cases in 10 countries in 2001.

It is when Dr. Scott talks about these figures that his passion increases. Being so close, the urgency is magnified. However, the task is a complex one. Rotary has not taken a narrow approach in its efforts. Not only are they funding the inoculations. Rotary also supports disease surveillance with special laboratories it sponsors. The money raised goes to the systematic use of Vitamin A, an important part of building children’s immune system. It also supports the fight to stop other diseases such as measles, worms, HIV/AIDS and malaria because all these health issues are interconnected.

While the task is monumental, money will not solve the entire problem. For example, Nigerian fundamentalist Muslims will not allow children to be inoculated for religious reasons. Then there is the challenge of countries facing prolonged war, which makes it extremely dangerous to provide assistance. Or there are the countries with extreme poverty that cannot provide the follow-up health services or other supports once an inoculation has taken place.

Finally, there is the challenge of re-infection. With global travel being readily available, there are cases where polio has reappeared after an infected person arrives from another country.

With all  Rotary does in the community, why should it take on this cause. As Russell points out, the Cobourg Rotary Club has pledged $500,000 over the next seven years to the new hospital. Then there are the youth initiatives like air cadets, scholarships, and exchange students. And this is just part of the list.

“We have opportunity to see how others live and to do something about it,” he says with conviction.

But with all the other fundraising that goes on in Northumberland, surely there must be some concern about meeting fundraising goals. Patchett, who chaired efforts to raised money for the United Way and the new hospital in the past, emphasizes that his new efforts will not hurt any other groups.

“The people of Northumberland are very generous. I think they will support other worthy causes and they will support us. You can’t just raise money for your own neighborhood. I think people know that,” he said. “People will take the eradication of polio very seriously.”

The benefits are not only the health of the world’s children, but there is a huge economic gain. It is expected $1.5 billion (US) would be saved by the world’s governments.

So don’t be surprised as you see the new signs about the eradication of polio going up. Nor should you raise an eyebrow over the next few months as the various causes come calling for your donations. And while you have a hand in your pocket, take a moment to think about these three men from Cobourg and their efforts both locally and globally.

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