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The Journal Gazette

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Polio survivor Rev Steven Ailes spoke at the Rotary Club luncheon at Pine Valley Country Club, Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 1:33 am

Survivor: Polio 'this close' to being wiped out

Frank Gray

It was 1954, the middle of the polio scare, before a vaccine had been developed, when hundreds of thousands of children were being struck down by the disease, and many were dying.

On a farm outside of Valpraiso, Steve Ailes, 4, came down with the disease. No one has any idea where he caught it, but he spent six weeks in the hospital, his legs packed in hot sandbags, and breathing with the help of an iron lung.

Unlike many others, Ailes recovered. He said people told him that he ran funny, but otherwise he lived a normal life, playing sports like baseball and basketball, not particularly well, but he still tried.

Today Ailes, a United Methodist pastor, is in his 60s, and he is now suffering from what is called post-polio syndrome, which involves muscle pain, weakness and fatigue. He has to use braces to walk.

But he is one of 640,000 Americans who survived the disease, and as a member of the Rotary International, he’s spent a good part of his life trying to eliminate the disease.

Ailes will be speaking at the Fort Wayne Rotary Club meeting at Parkview Field on Monday, recounting his experiences and celebrating being "this close" to achieving the goal of wiping the disease off the face of the earth.

Unlike the early 1950s, when pools and schools and theaters closed and people avoided crowds in hopes of escaping polio, Americans haven’t had to worry about the disease for decades.

As recently as 20 years ago, though, there were hundreds of thousands of cases of polio every year around the world.

But since 1985, when the Rotary launched its program to eradicate polio, 2.5 billion children have been immunized, and last year, worldwide, there were only 370 cases of polio.

All but two of those cases were in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That’s why Ailes refers to being "this close" to exterminating the disease.

Eliminating polio in those two countries is difficult, though. Wars and politics interfere with efforts to immunize people. There is distrust. Some people believe that the immunization is a plot to sterilize people, or that the shots will keep people from becoming Muslim. Polio workers have been assassinated, Ailes said.

It sounds absurd, but Ailes says one must remember that we’re talking about people who "have no perspective other than their small culture, and they’re surrounded by ideologues who are paranoid."

While only 370 cases of polio in the world in the last year is thrilling, there is always the danger that the disease could explode out of the countries where immunizations are resisted. There have been outbreaks in the past few years, spread by people from countries where the disease still exists.

But Ailes is confident. "I think we can make it disappear," he says.

The public can attend the Rotary meeting, which will be at noon, but seating is limited and people who want to attend are asked to make a reservation through fwrotarysecretary@gmail.com. The fee for lunch is $10.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.