It was an image Dean Dickinson would never forget: a polio stricken young boy, his knees attached to roller skates, wheeling across the street to beg for money.
That distressing scene was one of many Dickinson encountered on a 2015 vaccination mission to India on behalf of Rotary International. The 43-year member of the Rotary Club of La Crosse tears up when he recalls both the devastation and joy he witnessed when his group drove into a village, armed with bottles of the polio vaccine.
"You could see people everywhere in India -- young men, young women who had fallen through the net. Moms and dads all over the world have the same hopes and dreams: a safe life for their children," Dickinson said. "The people held up signs for us and balloons -- the one hope that these people have is Rotary."
Rotary launched the PolioPlus mission 31 years ago, after approaching the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Unicef. With their help, along with the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the organizations have reduced the number of people affected by 99.9 percent, an accomplishment they will celebrate today, the fourth annual World Polio Day, which includes an international broadcast from the CDC.
"There are thousands of Rotary Groups around the world working to improve quality of life," Dickinson said. "Rotary is ideal, it's transformational, it's the vehicle that allows us to do all this. Someone needs to be an advocate for kids -- kids are beautiful."
Since 1985, the global network of 1.2 million Rotary members has raised $1.2 billion for the cause and helped immunize 2.5 billion children in 122 countries. As of Oct. 12, only 30 people worldwide had been diagnosed with polio this year, a paralyzing disease that can be fatal.
"Imagine what we could put these resources toward if we didn't have to worry about polio," Dickinson said. "You put that drop of vaccine on a kid's tongue like you had when you were a kid, and you realized they'll never have to worry about themselves, their kids and their grandkids having it."
Dickinson remembers growing up when polio was a stateside concern and people were warned not to drink from public fountains or visit the movie theater.
"My parents sent me away to Augusta for the summer when I was 10, 11, 12, to keep me from contracting polio," Dickinson recalled. "I was acutely aware of the disease. My parents had a friend in an iron lung. A little girl in my church contracted it. It affected a lot of people."
Fellow La Crosse Rotarian Dirk Gasterland was diagnosed in 1951, at age 8, and recalls the grueling "treatment" process of having his legs wrapped in damp wool army blankets and then massaged to keep the muscles from atrophying.
"It was pretty debilitating -- my legs pretty much quit working. To this day I can't stand the smell of wet wool," Gasterland said. "I'm starting to have post-polio symptoms in my legs. What's ironic is that I got polio in 1951, and by 1953 they had a vaccine. I think it would be fantastic if we could get there, with no cases."
Dickinson recalls when the vaccine became available in La Crosse, and children walked to the fire station for a sugar cube infused with the formula. Today, the vaccination is administered from age infant to 5, with each dose costing a mere 60 cents.
"We're down to the last strain of polio," Dickinson said. "India has been free of new cases for four to five years now, but we need to keep up our vigilance."
Dickinson also participated in a vaccination trip to Nigeria in 2007, his first time out of the country, and was troubled by the lack of clean water and sanitation. The disease is most commonly transferred through human waste contamination.
"I was aware of the rich, middle class, the poor, even those in poverty, but I'd never witnessed people living in squalor," Dickinson said. "They have nothing, and we were there helping, but the people were so dedicated, finding others who didn't have the purple mark on their hand (indicating they had been vaccinated) and bringing them in. It was amazing."
Unicef, WHO and Rotary volunteers are stationed year-round in countries including Pakistan and Nigeria to administer vaccines, and, while the disease has no cure, the groups are close to eliminating polio worldwide, a feat that has only been achieved with small pox.
"I long for the day no kid ever has to worry about contracting polio," Dickinson said. "Imagine, we may be able to say next year that polio is eradicated."