Monday, February 14, 2011

The Order of the Bifurcated Needle

I was most fortunate – back when I was working for Rotary International (RI) – to meet many members of the “Order of the Bifurcated Needle”. The ‘order’ was created to honor the international health experts who were (if you’ll pardon the expression) instrumental in eradicating smallpox in 1977. The two-pronged or bifurcated needle was what was used to administer the vaccine.

When I joined the RI staff (in 1979) the organization had just decided to support a global effort to help eradicate polio. The organization was going to raise the money and enlist its incredible network of volunteers to wipe out a major crippler and sometimes killer of children. It was to be its gift to the world for new millennium. It was supposed to be complete in time for Rotary’s centennial, 2005. It wasn’t. It isn’t. And the debate about whether or not it can be done continues.

The man who created the “Order of the Bifurcated Needle” – Dr. D.A. Henderson -- recently declared that the polio eradication effort could not succeed but, more recently, agreed that it could. Other members of the ‘order’ – Dr. Ciro de Quadros and Dr. William H. Foege – helped change his mind. That and the unstinting financial support of the Gates Foundation.

I met all these men as part of my job with RI. I was in the auditorium of the Pan American Health Organization’s Washington, D.C. headquarters on the day an international commission announced that polio had been wiped out of the Western Hemisphere.

And I met the Rotary volunteers in Guatemala and Mexico and the Philippines and Turkey and Peru and India who were part of the massive efforts in their respective countries.

They are still working. They are still dedicated to eradicating the disease that people in this country barely remember.

I know the nature of the people involved. It will happen. Polio will be wiped out.

Dr. Ciro de Quadros led the fight against smallpox in Ethiopia. Dr. Henderson remembered: "I watched him perform in Ethiopia. … The obstacles were unbelievable - the emperor assassinated, two revolutionary groups fighting, nine of his own teams kidnapped, even a helicopter captured and held for ransom. He kept the teams in the field - and that helicopter pilot went out and vaccinated all the rebels."

It will happen again. Polio will be wiped out.

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