This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
For five days last week, as the rhythms of high school lunch period ebbed and flowed around them, members of Hibriten High’s Interact Club tinged their classmates’ pinkie fingers purple with gentian violet solution.
The same thing happens worlds away, in countries like Pakistan and Nigeria, as volunteers administer the polio vaccine. Kids’ pinkies are marked with the solution so they don’t accidentally receive a double-dose.
Interact is the high school affiliate of Rotary International – an organization that, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has led the charge to stamp out the last few pockets of polio in the world.
That’s how students at Hibriten found themselves staging the Purple Pinkie Project last week.
The Interact Club got ready for the fundraiser as they would any other – setting a $1 price for each purple pinkie, making posters and setting them up around school, and getting Foothills Pharmacy to donate bottles of gentian violet.
But when they got set up on Monday, some students didn’t understand the cause they’d chosen.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about polio,” said Denise Long, chair of the Lenoir Rotary’s Interact committee. “One of the students came up and said, ‘Well, wasn’t polio wiped out 200 years ago?’”
Polio has been stomped out in the United States, though not 200 years ago. The viral disease – which in most cases causes no symptoms but at its worst can hand down maladies as severe as paralysis and atrophied limbs – was dreaded by U.S. parents in the 1940s and ’50s.
In 1952, nearly 60,000 were infected by the disease, and thousands paralyzed.
The Unifour area was stricken by a polio epidemic in 1944 – leading citizens to construct a last-minute treatment facility in Hickory when hospitals in Charlotte, Gastonia and Asheville filled up and closed their doors.
In the U.S., Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was approved in April 1955. Vaccinations had eliminated the virus from the U.S. by 1979.
But in other parts of the world – mostly Third World countries – the disease still stalks unvaccinated children. Both Rotary International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have poured billions of dollars into a coordinated drive to wipe out polio. Volunteers are paid $2 and $3 stipends to vaccinate children in some countries, the New York Times reported in 2011.
Since Gates took up the cause in the 1980s, caseloads are 99 percent lower – but there have been setbacks.
Organizers will get the disease confined to three or four areas, only to see it flare up in other undeveloped countries.
In 2005, there was a brief outbreak in the United States, in Minnesota Amish Country.
And in the Middle East, rumors have spread that the oral drops now used to dispense the vaccine are really a conspiracy to sterilize Muslim girls. In Pakistan, Taliban operatives have murdered vaccinators.
But Rotary and the Gates’ foundation keep pushing forward against these last remaining cases of the crippling disease.
The money to squeeze the caseload down came largely from matching funds pledged by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But it was also pieced together, dollar by dollar, by grassroots efforts like the Purple Pinkie Project.
In 2012, there were just 223 cases in five countries.
“It really is just that close,” Long said. “But it’s not over yet.”