Santa Paula Times

Nils Rueckert (photo at left) and Arnie Dowdy (right) administer polio vaccines.

Rotarians take part in massive India polio immunization effort

May 12, 2004
Santa Paula News
By Peggy Kelly Santa Paula Times“Visit India and you will never be the same again,” is an old saying that goes back a century, but Nils Rueckert of the Santa Paula Rotary Club now knows that it is true.Rueckert, along with District Governor Arnie Dowdy and Carol Burhoe, just returned from India where they took part in the PolioPlus Immunization Day. It was Dowdy and Burhoe’s second trip to India to take part in the international program to eradicate the disease.Rueckert told Rotary Club members that he had culture shock when the trio first arrived in India: “I was in sensory overload with all the new and strange sights, sounds and smells,” in the land of almost 1-billion people. “This mass of humanity hits you right between the eyes, with a constant movement of people by every conceivable means of transportation.”The Santa Paula delegation was among representatives of the 25 clubs in Rotary District 5240 who were to assist in administering vaccine to babies and young children.Rueckert noted that there are “only a few pockets left in the world,” where polio persists. “Until the very last country is declared polio-free, the disease can rear-up and spread again. A $3-billion worldwide effort, including $600-million alone from Rotary, over the last 18 years would go down the drain.“India has several National Immunization Days each year and the whole country mobilizes for the effort.Preparation for the Feb. 22 immunization was “mind-boggling. . .” including a massive public relations campaign to make sure that each East Indian, no matter how remote their village, is prepared for immunization.“Vaccination stations are set up, 650,000 in all, and three million volunteers are mobilized,” to meet the target of 167 million babies and children, noted Rueckert.Teams were flown to villages throughout India and Rueckert found himself in Lakhimpur, at least after an 80-mile trip that took five hours due to traffic, both human and animal.
Rueckert will never forget the camp of volunteer doctors who operate on many child polio victims for tendon surgery to relieve the ravages of polio.“Nothing is more heart-rendering than seeing a child crawling on all fours because it cannot walk,” but the surgery is often successful in aiding rehabilitation of polio victims.After the vaccine drops are administered more work is required to go house to house to ensure all babies and children have been immunized, Rueckert noted.The total experience included staying with Rotary families and learning more about the country’s culture.“For me, it was the most meaningful experience I’ve had in Rotary. Finding myself in a third-world country, actually placing two drops of polio vaccine into the mouths of an uncounted number of babies and young children in a Muslim slum, was the culmination of hearing the constant drumbeat about polio eradication for all the 18 years I’ve been in Rotary. It put a real face, for me, on this Herculean and truly humanitarian effort. It makes you proud to be a Rotarian.”Burhoe, who first took part in the India immunization effort in 2001, said the effort is now better organized with “much more emphasis on rural areas,” to ensure that all receive the vaccine.“You cannot imagine what happens to your eyes and lungs for a week,” in smoky, polluted India, said Dowdy.But, Dowdy added, the “Progress in India has changed dramatically,” including the cooperation of Muslim clerics who assured others that the vaccine was not a Western plot to harm or sterilize their children.