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March 16, 2011

Famous Violinist Works to Eradicate Polio

Poliomyelitis, known as polio, is a viral disease that can cause paralysis.  It once infected millions of people each year, but vaccination efforts around the world have brought the yearly number of new cases to just less than 1000.  That dramatic reduction is in large part thanks to Rotary International, a service organization, and its efforts to eradicate the disease completely by 2012.  Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign has attracted support from famous polio survivors, as it did recently from Itzhak Perlman, one of the greatest violinists in the world.

Itzhak Perlman is one of the greatest violinists of our time.   He graduated from the famous Julliard School of Music in New York and received the National Medal of the Arts and 15 Grammy Awards.

But before the accolades and awards, the Israeli-born musician was a four-year-old boy stricken by a debilitating disease.

"One afternoon I was on the bed, and I was standing up on my bed in Tel Aviv, and I felt a little weak, and I had to sit down, ‘cause you know I was four years old - I was wild riding bikes and stuff like that… And all of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t do it, and that was it," he recalls.

Before a vaccine was developed for polio, Perlman became one of its victims. The disease may have robbed him of the ability to walk, but it did not jeopardize the masterful movement of his arms.

Polio also failed to rob him of his voice, a powerful asset to Rotary in its fight to end the disease, once and for all.   

Before performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Rotary's Concert to End Polio, he spoke to VOA about his music and about the dread disease.  

"One of the stories of, I suppose, comical situations here is that we still have polio considering that we have vaccines available," Perlman said.

"The challenge is that while there is polio anywhere in the world, all children are at risk," Carol Pandak said.

Pandak leads Rotary International’s effort to eradicate polio in the four countries where it is still present: India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.  To keep the disease isolated, millions of doses of vaccine are needed each year.

"To get to zero, you need to immunize 300 million, 400 million children every year, Pandak said."

The global effort is expensive. "It costs around $800 million a year for global polio eradication.  Over the next two years we have a funding gap of 720 million," she explained.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have pledged $355 million.  Rotary hopes to raise another 200 million with an aggressive campaign.

General Manager John Osterlund says the campaign is working, thanks in part to Itzhak Perlman.

"Certainly his presence adds a great deal to what we’re hoping to accomplish in terms of bringing to attention of people here in the Midwest, particularly in Chicago, that although polio has been gone from the United States for many, many decades, it’s still a very real thing in the world," he said.

"We’ve been jabbing at this thing,” Perlman adds, “and the knockout punch is very close."

Perlman has been using the thing he knows best - music - to combat the one thing he was unable to fight as a child.  

He was the featured performer at Rotary's Concert to End Polio.  The proceeds will go to the End Polio Now campaign.

"If people know that I am a polio survivor, that I’ve had my career despite that, for me, that’s not really an important fact.  The important fact is why go through that if you have a vaccine," he said.

The vaccine is working.  There were fewer than 1000 new cases of polio in 2010, down from 350,000 cases in 1988.  But experts say it could make a comeback, if vaccines don't reach into the most remote corners of the world.