More than a decade ago, Chautauqua County resident Warren Beyer recalled the horrors of growing up with a condition that many Americans have not had to worry about for decades. Beyer, at age 7, contracted poliomyelitis. It can lead to paralysis and, in a worst-case scenario, become fatal.
“Many of my muscles were affected, even my diaphragm so I could not breathe for myself,” he said while speaking at a Music on the Pier event in Dunkirk in 2011 that was dedicated to the Rotary mission of eradicating polio worldwide. He said his condition became so debilitating he was placed in an iron lung to help stimulate his breathing.
His recovery from the virus was filled with challenges. He remembered going through “intense physical therapy” for 18 months to two years. “It was extremely painful,” he said.
Beyer persevered — and went on to become a teacher in Dunkirk schools before later sharing a financial planning business with Dan Ryel in Fredonia. His story of struggle with the disease was something from the past — and becoming somewhat of a rarity in our nation.
Across the globe, efforts to end polio had been making significant strides.
Led by the work of international Rotary Clubs, including those in Chautauqua County, cases were dwindling on an annual basis. When the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988, polio was present in more than 125 countries and paralyzed about 1,000 children per day. Since that time, immunizations have reached nearly 3 billion children and accounted for a 99% decrease in cases while being prevalent in only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But COVID-19 put a halt to that progress. With much of the world on lockdown — and international travel at a near-standstill — polio cases rose again with 31 countries currently noting at least one case.
A newcomer to the list included the United States with a confirmed case from July in Rockland County, which is north of New York City. Earlier this month, state Gov. Kathy Hochul issued a state of emergency after the poliovirus was detected in wastewater samples collected in Orange, Rockland, and Sullivan counties in April, May, June, July, and August.
Whether vaccine hesitation, which has been highly debated across the nation over the last two years due to the pandemic, has played a role in polio’s resurgence is unknown. “On polio, we simply cannot roll the dice,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said earlier this month. “If you or your child are unvaccinated or not up to date with vaccinations, the risk of paralytic disease is real. I urge New Yorkers to not accept any risk at all. Polio immunization is safe and effective — protecting nearly all people against disease who receive the recommended doses. Do not wait to vaccinate.”
Polio’s reality could be witnessed in a number of Third World countries, where inadequate sanitation leads to a greater spread of the virus through contaminated water. Mothers with young children gather in large crowds for that magic drop of the oral vaccine in their infant’s mouth as a layer of protection against a potentially deadly ailment.
Here in New York, there appears to be less urgency. In announcing the state of emergency, numbers of those vaccinated against polio were revealed. Surprisingly, many counties are at a rate of less than 90%. Statewide, the percentage is 77 with Chautauqua County at 85%.
This month, the topic of polio was discussed at the county Health Board meeting. Christine Schuyler, public health director, noted her office has received calls from adults wanting to get the vaccine. “Right now there is no recommendation for this polio, so (health insurance isn’t) paying for it,” she said.
Billionaire Bill Gates, Microsoft founder, partnered with Rotary in 2013 through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eliminate the virus in the last decade. He expressed alarm by America’s most recent case. “News that polio has been detected in New York wastewater samples is an urgent reminder: until we #EndPolio for good, it remains a threat to us all,” he said on Twitter. “The global eradication strategy must be fully supported to protect people everywhere.”
Three years ago, our world was within whiskers of putting polio to rest. COVID — and the ensuing debate over vaccinations — appears to have given that virus from the past a dangerous new life.
John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to [email protected] or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.