SPRING HILL — One medicine dropper dose at a time, Michael and Sandra Fitzgerald have been working to save young people from a crippling disease that in this country exists mostly as a memory.
Here are some of its new victims:
• A lovely second-grade girl with long, wavy red hair. When she stood to make her way to the blackboard, her beauty was dimmed by a steel-and-leather brace wrapped around a rigid leg.
• A cherubic blue-eyed boy, now absent from school. He was hospitalized, encased in an iron lung.
• A pert and perky curly-haired first-grader, who was cavorting around the school on a Friday afternoon. She wasn't in line on Monday. She died over the weekend.
All were struck by polio.
Vaccines to prevent the disease in the United States have been widely available for about 50 years, and the country is considered polio-free by health experts. Much of the rest of the world is, too. But not all.
Since 1985, Rotary International has spent $1 billion fighting polio in countries where it still terrorizes young people, and in February the Fitzgeralds joined an entourage of 37 Rotarians carrying this battle to one of those nations, India.
Conditions there, especially contaminated water supplies, greatly complicate polio eradication.
In developed countries, one dose of the vaccine — sometimes a single booster — provides lifelong immunization.
But in India, where municipal water and sewage systems are rare outside of major cities, "there's so much dysentery, they have to get immunized three times a year till age 5," said Michael Fitzgerald, 59, a retired accountant. "Bad water causes a lot of bad problems."
"In a temple we saw a pool," said Sandra Fitzgerald, 45, a retired foreign language teacher. "It was green. I saw a woman washing a baby. If you saw this water . . . oh, my Lord Jesus."
The temple was near a high-risk rural village northwest of Delhi. Volunteers set up a clinic at the bus station and, accompanied by workers from the World Health Organization, even went door-to-door, seeking newborns to 5-year-olds in whose mouths they would place a single drop of vaccine on the tongue. "The youngest I gave it to," said Michael Fitzgerald, "was 2 weeks old."
Walking house-to-house with a cooler full of iced live vaccines, the Fitzgeralds often encountered large extended families living in just two rooms.
Many others had no homes at all.
"People were literally living in dumps," Michael Fitzgerald said.
Why would the Fitzgeralds and other Rotarians leave comfortable lifestyles to work in an impoverished country at their own expense?
"We do believe in humanitarian effort," said Sandra Fitzgerald, a member of Rotary Club of Spring Hill Central.
Michael Fitzgerald, a Rotarian for more than 20 years, said the trip was something the couple would take on only once — "This is a bucket-list item," he said — and probably only in India, which is more receptive to Rotary volunteers than are many other countries still affected by polio, including Afghanistan.
"The people from India were so friendly," Sandra Fitzgerald said. "They were so glad to see us."
The populace was also well-prepared for the visit. For several days before, local volunteers pedaled bicycles through the villages, blaring announcements of the vaccinations through bullhorns. Banners announcing the events were hung across streets. Folks draped garlands of marigolds around the necks of caregivers when they appeared.
The Rotary group vaccinated more children than expected. The Fitzgeralds said age-eligible children had been counted beforehand — 213,218 in the state where the couple volunteered. But the area attracts many transients, Michael Fitzgerald said. At the end of the three-day immunization campaign, 227,299 were tallied.
Large as that number might seem, it's tiny compared with the country's population as a whole, which is more than 1.2 billion.
Although the terms "rural" and "village" conjure up visions of sparse, wide spaces, Michael Fitzgerald said, "I don't think anything's little; there's so much population there."
Even in the countryside, traffic clogs up the good roads. Conveyances include cars and trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, oxen, carts, donkeys and foot power. Michael Fitzgerald photographed a bicycle bearing four huge sacks of goods. He saw a motorcycle carrying four people, and another laden so high that the driver had tied on a ladder to reach the top of the pile.
Open produce markets, with their varieties of colorful produce, attracted Sandra Fitzgerald. But the visitors were warned off eating anything fresh because it might carry disease and were advised to eat mainly in hotels and drink only bottled water.
Now that they have returned, the Fitzgeralds still have work to do, spreading the word about polio through presentations to all service and civic clubs asking to hear about Rotary's eradication effort, perhaps to raise money for the vaccines, which cost 60 cents per dose.
Rotary is working to raise additional funds to match a $355 million challenge grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Although the Gates' support to eradicate polio worldwide has focused attention on the need, Forbes magazine notes on its website, "Bill Gates didn't start the fight to eradicate polio, Rotary did."
Beth N. Gray can be contacted at [email protected]