Phil and Deanna Magdich of Fairfield Glade have returned from a trip to India where they, along with hundreds of other Rotarians, participated in a three-day National Immunization Day program sponsored by the Indian government. During that time more than 175 million children were immunized against polio.
"We found that the government at all levels had done an excellent job of notifying the public of the need to immunize all children five years old and younger," said Deanna.
Polio is an age-old disease that was first described in pictures by the Egyptians. It reached its most devastating levels during the 1940s and 1950s. During that time approximately 500 million people died or were crippled by the disease.
Polio is a virus that lives only in human feces. The virus can live for up to three days. It affects the central nervous system. The further up the spine the virus travels, the more profound the disease. It can range from a slight limp to total paralysis.
Though iron lungs were common in the United States to treat the disease, it was never used in India because of the poverty. If polio was that advanced, you simply did not live.
Polio thrives due to poor sanitary conditions. It is considered a fecal/oral transmitted disease. Since toilets are often unavailable, many simply use the streets or the fields for their needs. If their hands are not properly cleaned, that virus can be transferred to their own mouth or to food and then to the unsuspecting individual. More children than adults contract the disease.
"We visited St. Stephen’s hospital in New Delhi, where the orthopedic doctors perform corrective surgeries free of charge to the patients with polio and free in-patient care to the patient and the caregiver," said Deanna. "Most of the patients are in their late teens, come from rural villages and are usually very poor. They come for the corrective surgery to make them more attractive to a marriage partner."
India still has the practice of arranged marriages, and someone with a disability is considered undesirable. Many there believe those who are disabled cannot provide for a family or take care of children. The corrective surgery gives them hope for a normal life.
The actual time spent for the immunization was in Chandigarh, a city of 1.2 million people north and west of New Delhi. The local Rotarians of Chandigarh opened their homes to the visiting Rotarians, which allowed them to see India from the inside.
The couple spent their first day there at a day care center where the children, often without a parent, would come for their polio drops. The children would stand in front of the table, put their heads back and open their mouths to receive the two drops. Some children would bring younger brothers and sisters for the drops. After the drops were given, the Magdiches and other Rotarians then marked the little finger nail of the left hand.
"This was a good control so that drops would not be given more than once," Deanna explained.
The next two days were spent going door to door, making sure that every child five years old and younger had the opportunity to receive the drops. The Indian women that the Rotarians worked with were very well organized. There was a list of everyone living in the buildings, and each house was marked showing that they had called and whether or not drops were necessary or were given. The record keeping was very exact, she noted.
"We worked in an area that was very poor," Deanna stated. "The housing was minimal. We were invited into one of the houses lived in by a polio worker who had been assisting us. It was made up of two rooms, no running water — which means no bathroom — and a kitchen which consisted of a hot plate. Water was available at a spigot out on the street shared by the neighborhood.
"During the day, mattresses could be seen stacked up on a cot," she continued. "When it was time to sleep, the mattresses would simply be put on the floor and everyone would find their spot for the night. There was no TV.
"These were the nice houses," she added.
According to the Magdiches, the real slums are the huts, shacks and tents that seem to grow in clusters and keep spreading. They also have no running water, perhaps electricity and are very crowded. Most have been there for generations.
These extreme conditions are found not just in Chandigarh, but all over India. Animals roam the streets looking for garbage to eat. This is true in the villages, small cities and large cities. They are well provided for because all sorts of garbage and animal waste is abundant even in major cities such as New Delhi.
"Make sure you watch where you are stepping," Deanna said.
The last case of polio reported in India was two years ago in a remote village. Several Muslim families had refused to take the vaccine. After the report, 50,000 thousand men, women and children of all ages in the area had to be immunized. Anyone who had come into contact with the family in any way needed the vaccine.
If there are no new cases reported in 2013, India will be considered polio free, or non-endemic, meaning that for three years in a row there has not been a new case reported.
Like so many third world countries, India deals with a burgeoning population (1.2 billion), air pollution, water pollution, disease and lack of education.
"It would be very easy to simply turn a blind eye and ignore the seemingly insurmountable problems that exist because of extreme poverty," Deanna stated. "The India Rotarians we met did not."
They started vocational schools for the women of the slum communities where they can learn cosmetology, tailoring and computer skills. They also have after school tutoring for the young and teach young mothers how to sew for their children.
"We saw a school devoted to teaching the hearing impaired — possibly from untreated ear infections — so that they will have employable skills," she said. "We toured a 20-bed hospital built for heart attack patients because the traffic is so bad an ambulance could not make it to a hospital in the next city before the patient died. This hospital now is also a cancer treatment facility.
"One Rotary club assisted a village to construct a building for food garbage and then brought in worms to turn it into compost," she added. "Not every solution has to be high tech."
The last reported case of polio in the United States was in 2005 in an Amish community in Minnesota, where they had not been immunized. The virus, which they trace through examination of the feces, was from Kuwait by way of the Netherlands.
Since 1985, Rotary, through the PolioPlus program, has donated more than 1.2 billion U.S. dollars towards the eradication of polio. Recently, there have been reports of very generous individuals and foundations donating hundreds of millions of dollars towards this end. The goal is total eradication by year 2018. Until this is accomplished, polio is only a plane ride away.
"It was a humbling experience working with the Indian people to immunize their children. They were happy to see us and pleased that we were willing to spend our personal time and money to help them," said Deanna.
"We have traveled many places in the world and have seen extreme poverty," she added, "but there is nothing that can prepare you for the poverty of India. Also, there is nothing that can prepare you for the kindness and openness you will experience when visiting India, especially, if you are fortunate, as we were, to meet an Indian Rotarian."