If you know of Fort Wayne attorney Bill Harris' childhood, you understand his elation at last week's declaration by the World Health Organization that the wild poliovirus has been eradicated from the continent of Africa.
Harris had just started the seventh grade when he experienced a very stiff neck. That was followed by a weakness in his legs and severe muscle atrophy in his right hand and arm. The diagnosis – polio – would keep him out of school for weeks, require lengthy rehabilitation and leave permanent nerve damage to his hand and arm.
Now 82, Harris considers himself lucky to have eventually regained sufficient strength in his legs to complete a 26.2-mile marathon in every U.S. state – a goal he started chasing at 60.
He still runs, but in a concession to his knees says it's now half-marathons and 5Ks, including the Fort Wayne Rotary 5K Walk/Run to Eradicate Polio. Started more than a decade ago by the Anthony Wayne Rotary Club and Barrie Peterson, a Northrop cross country coach, the fundraiser assists Rotary International with its Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
More than three decades since its launch, when polio was still claiming more than 300,000 children a year, the initiative has now vaccinated more than 2.5 billion children. Some of them were in Nigeria, the last African nation to be declared free of the wild poliovirus.
Now the focus turns to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the two remaining countries with the virus. More than 100 cases have been reported in 2020.
The Downtown Rotary has since joined forces with Anthony Wayne to sponsor the annual polio 5K event, and Harris enthusiastically volunteers to help organize it.
Runner Brett Hess has replaced Peterson and joins Harris as race directors.
Last year, more than 120 local runners (and walkers) took part in the Rotary 5K and raised about $5,000. Matched 2-to-1 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that translated to a $15,000 gift to help Rotary International's polio effort. This year's event was canceled by the coronavirus, but Harris vows it will return next year for the 12th time.
“I don't want anyone to suffer needlessly when a vaccine is readily available,” he said. “If I can help raise money or awareness about polio, I want to do it. ... I ache for those with braces or wheelchairs and cannot walk, let alone run.”
And that, is what keeps Harris and local Rotarians running.