“I had polio when I was 13 ... Polio is just a memory now, but it was a horrible disease. I got it a year or two before Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was distributed.”
— Golf legend Jack Nicklaus, quoted in Golf Digest, by Bob Greene in The Wall Street Journal, April 3
I was surprised to learn, as you probably are, that Jack Nicklaus, golf’s Golden Bear, had to win a battle with polio before he became history’s winningest pro golfer. Nicklaus contracted polio because, as he noted in the quote above, there was no preventative at the time. Nicklaus was lucky his polio was mild enough to allow him to recover, and regain the use of his legs. Others, including his sister, weren’t so lucky. Thousands of American children wound up in iron lungs and braces because of polio.
Then came the Salk vaccine, and later the Sabin vaccine. Within a generation, polio was wiped out in the United States, and by the 1990s in most of the rest of the world.
But hotbeds of polio remain. In Pakistan, one of the most medically enlightened societies, ironically some Islamic extremists believe the polio vaccine is a plot by Western societies to sterilize Muslim men. In that country, and in Afghanistan, where the same ideas persist, aid workers trying to vaccinate children have been assassinated. India, which was declared polio free in 2011, is worried polio will be reintroduced by unvaccinated visitors from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nigeria is another country where vaccination against polio is looked upon with suspicion, and children become ill as a result.
Some American parents are suspicious of immunization against polio and other diseases. When they decide not to have their children vaccinated, however, they do so with the knowledge that vaccinations by other contemporary children and previous generations have probably made their unvaccinated children safe by virtue of having wiped out the disease.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization and Rotary International were instrumental in chasing polio away from most of the planet. If you have supported local Rotary fundraisers, you can say that you, too, were instrumental in eradicating polio. Local Rotarians have gone abroad to help in the cause, spending time and effort to vaccinate children with oral vaccine.
Jack Nicklaus’ reminiscence is a good reminder of the favors the fight against polio has done for humankind.