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Italian Vacation? Let's Help Eradicate Polio Instead

Rotary Club Volunteers
This is a guest post by Philip L. Graitcer and the first in a five-part series about a group of dedicated Rotary volunteers 
helping to eradicate polio in Kaduna, Nigeria.  

They're at a point in their lives where they could be playing with their grandchildren, working in the garden, or on a cruise, instead, these seniors are spending their leisure time eradicating polio in Nigeria. I'm meeting up with a 15-member polio immunization team - all Rotary International  club volunteers with an average age of 60. They've come from all over the United States - and at their own expense - to vaccinate children against polio in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna.

Polio is a viral disease that causes paralysis and death in children. At one time, it was a big problem throughout the world as well as in the U.S. Perhaps you can remember when polio closed swimming pools, iron lungs were feared, and little March of Dimes cards were on every drug store counter.

In the 1950's, polio vaccine was introduced, and the number of cases of polio in the U.S. and in Europe began to decrease. By the 1980's, polio was a threat only to children living in poorer countries.

For 25 years, Rotary clubs have been organizing volunteer teams to travel to developing countries to help immunize children against polio. It's part of a global campaign to eradicate polio, organized by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, UNICEF, and Rotary. The campaign has been hugely successful. Today, there are less than 250 cases of polio in the world, and those cases are in only three countries - Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Volunteer Patrice Putnam
On the volunteer team is Patrice Putnam, a 59-year old lawyer from Winthrop, Maine. She'd never been to Africa. She and her husband, Jerry, were saving to go to Italy to ride bikes and drink wine when they learned about the Rotary trip to Nigeria. She had another idea. "I just wanted to do something that might just change the world a little bit, so we took what we had saved and put it into this trip instead."

She told me it would be something to tell her grandchildren, and besides, "I wanted to be able to say, 'there used to be a terrible disease and we were part of ending it.' "

Graitcer is an independent radio producer based in Georgia. His stories have been heard on NPR, The World, Studio 360, and VOA. This is his fourth career - he's also been a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, a university professor, and a bicycle tour leader in Europe. His most recent radio stories can be heard on the website. You can follow him on Twitter at @radio_phil.

To learn how to volunteer for a Rotary polio trip, contact your local club or Rotary International.

Check back for Part 2 of this series next Wednesday. 

Photos by Philip Graitcer

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