ERLANGER, Ky. (AP) — John Salyers remembers as a child growing up in the 1950s he had to wait in a long line to get the polio vaccine as anxiety over the disease closed pools and worried parents.
Then, there were 50,000 cases a year in the United States. In the first three months of this year, only 11 cases worldwide in three countries have been reported, according to the World Health Organization.
Thanks in part to the efforts of Salyers, 65, of Erlanger, and others with Rotary International, polio in the next few years might soon go the way of smallpox and become the second human infectious disease to be eradicated from the globe.
Salyers, a former field representative for U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, last year joined five other members of Rotary International's Polio Eradication Task Force with the hope of ridding the planet by 2018 of this scourge that has left thousands of children handicapped.
Salyers now heads the Florence Rotary Club and has spoken with thousands of people, raising money for the Rotary's efforts to fight polio.
Tears welled in his eyes when he thought about the progress the organization has made over the past 30 years. "We're watching it one case at a time," Salyers said. "I get emotional about it. It's a commitment we've made to the children of the world we can't give up on. ... One case in the world is a major thing for us. We want to know who had the case, where it came from, where they had been, how they contracted it."
Salyers' connections on Capitol Hill after 24 years of working for Bunning led to his appointment to the international task force. He's visited with members of Congress in the hopes of keeping the $150 million annually in federal funding.
"We have a lot of young members in Congress who don't remember polio, so it's our job to go to them and inform them what's going on," Salyers said. "And they've been receptive."
Salyers said the money raised has been well spent. Rotary International has raised $1.2 billion for polio eradication efforts since the mid-1980s when there were 350,000 cases annually worldwide in 125 countries. Some $9 billion has been spent overall with donations from Rotarians, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and government aid, Salyers said.
"We've immunized 2.5 billion children worldwide at $9 billion - you figure that out, it's $4 a child - and we've gone from 350,000 cases to 11," Salyers said. "The money we're spending worldwide, when polio is back in the box, and the lid is shut, all money we're spending could be spent on other problems."
Workers for Rotary, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United Nations Children Fund and the World Health Organization use the oral vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in Cincinnati to immunize children in the final three countries where new cases of polio crop up: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
"We're hiring people in those countries to go in and immunize children, into places like Afghanistan, Pakistan where soldiers have tough times going, going in villages and mountains trying to find every child," Salyers said. "It is a big effort. They've faced culture differences, war, people who thought the U.S. was trying to sterilize their children."
If they're successful, no new cases worldwide of polio will be seen by 2015. If no new cases crop up for three consecutive years after that, the World Health Organization will certify polio as eradicated.
Salyers is continuing to raise money. A concert fundraiser is May 13 at the Florence Baptist Church.
"When that end comes and the polio virus is considered interrupted and there's no more virus, children would be free of the death and paralysis that comes with it. That's what keeps you going, and that's what gives me passion for the whole deal," he said.
Information from: The Kentucky Enquirer, http://www.nky.com