Polio victim shares his story with Brookings Rotary Club

Courtesy photo: Mark Sternhagen, of Brookings, spoke to the Brookings Rotary Club Tuesday via Zoom about his experiences as a polio survivor. Rotary International is a major partner in helping to eradicate polio worldwide.

Local author, teacher Mark Sternhagen relates personal experiences as survivor of virus

BROOKINGS – Mark Sternhagen, of Brookings, was uniquely qualified to discuss his personal experiences with members of the Brookings Rotary Club as the speaker for the club’s virtual meeting this week, which focused on World Polio Day Oct. 24. Sternhagen contracted the disease in 1957 when he was just a baby.

The Salk vaccine that prevents polio was approved in 1955. “In December 1956, when the vaccine was being administered in my hometown of Scotland, South Dakota, I had a fever, so I wasn’t vaccinated,” Sternhagen told Rotarians via Zoom. “I got polio the following August, when I was 18 months old.”

After many years of wearing a leg brace and using crutches, Sternhagen now navigates with the use of a wheelchair. An active spokesperson for those with disabilities, he serves as an advocate for fellow members of the Brookings Committee for People Who Have Disabilities, and is a board member for LifeScape in Sioux Falls – an organization from which he used to receive services as a youngster. He is the author of two books, and holds several college degrees, including a master’s from SDSU in industrial management.

Brookings Rotarians have a passionate interest in learning more about a polio survivor’s story. Rotary International through The Rotary Foundation plays a critical role in an international effort to eradicate polio worldwide. Donations from the more than 1.2 million Rotarians around the globe contribute to PolioPlus, aided by corporate gifts from such sources as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And the efforts are working.

“When Rotary and its partners launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, there were 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries every year. We’ve made great progress against the disease since then,” said Brookings Club President Don Norton. Today, polio cases have been reduced by 99.9 percent, and just two countries continue to report cases of wild poliovirus: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With polio nearly eradicated, Rotary and its partners must sustain this progress and continue to reach every child with the polio vaccine. Without full funding and political commitment, this paralyzing disease could return to polio-free countries, putting children everywhere at risk. Rotary has committed to raising $50 million each year to support global polio eradication efforts. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged to match that 2-to-1, for a total yearly contribution of $150 million.

“For more than 30 years, Rotary and its partners have driven the effort to eradicate polio worldwide. Rotary’s PolioPlus program was the first initiative to tackle global polio eradication by vaccinating children on a massive scale,” said Norton. “Rotary members have contributed more than $2.1 billion and countless volunteer hours to protect more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries from this paralyzing disease.

“And we remain committed to continue until this totally preventable disease is completely eliminated from the earth,” Norton emphasized.

Sternhagen, an author and retired professor, said he and other polio survivors don’t want sympathy, but rather empathy. “I ask people to consider, ‘what if it were me?’ ” He is encouraged by current efforts to create a vaccine for the current COVID-19 virus, speculating there might have been an additional two million cases of polio if the Salk vaccine had not been developed when it was. “It gives me hope. After all, we found a vaccine for polio.”

To learn more about Sternhagen’s story and his publications, visit his website at www.normal4me.com. For more information about the Brookings Rotary Club, visit www.brookingsrotary.org or contact President Don at [email protected]

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