By Randy Pierce
FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS – Ralph Zuke, past president of the Fairview Heights Rotary Club, is currently on his way to Houston, Texas but not flying in a plane, travelling by train or driving a motor vehicle. He is, for the second time in his life, riding a modified bicycle to the Rotary International annual worldwide conference in an effort to raise money for the organization’s Polio Plus program.
Riding a self-propelled “Barcolounger Rickshaw,” Zuke left from St. Louis, where he transferred his Rotary membership to a couple of years ago, this Monday, May 2, and plans to arrive the day before the conference begins on June 3.
Covering a distance of over 1000 miles, Zuke is taking on this kind of challenge less than five years after having previously pedaled his way to the RI conference in Toronto, Canada, in 2018, a 22-day trip which saw him raising $24,000 that was used toward the international effort to completely eradicate polio from the earth. That total was matched at a two-to-one ratio by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which brought the entire contribution to $72,000.
Zuke raises donations by offering rides in the rickshaw attached to his bicycle, sponsorships and outright contributions from those along his route.
While different from the coronavirus that has plagued the world and has been at the forefront of people’s minds for most of the past two years, polio is a virus that was a major concern, especially as related to the well-being of children, largely during the middle of the 20th century in this country while also spreading throughout the world for decades beyond that time.
It has been over 30 years since Rotary International first took on the task of fighting to wipe polio from the face of the earth.
In about 2007, noted technology magnate Bill Gates set up a foundation to join the effort, the results being over 2.5 billion children worldwide having been immunized against the disease.
The staggering number of diagnosed polio cases in the world when Rotary began tackling the problem in 1988 was 350,000 a day. Several countries had children suffering from polio when this all began but there are now only a few cases which are limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rotarians throughout the world have worked diligently toward their goal of eradication of this disease but there is still work to be done in those last two countries where it exists and to keep it from popping up again in other locations.
The existence of polio in remote areas of countries with low levels of affluence and economic stability, plus accessibility challenges for a variety of reasons, means that Rotarians group together for excursions into those regions so that children can be vaccinated.
The Rotary polio eradication effort has always been supported by the Fairview Heights club but took on more local pertinence and significance in 2018 when Zuke, then serving as its president, received a special award from the district president of the organization along with international recognition by being featured in the monthly magazine published by Rotary International for his monumental effort.
Such an honor did not come easy as the primary reason for Zuke to be recognized like this was his 703-mile ride, which started in Fairview Heights, to Toronto, Ontario, at the age of 52 four years ago.
The means of transportation he uses for the long journeys somewhat resembles a rickshaw with a comfortable chair/seat resting on two wheels attached to the back of his conventional bicycle.
Polio, or poliomyelitis as it is more formally called, is a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus. The virus spreads from person to person and can infect a person’s spinal cord, causing a crippling paralysis and is easily preventable by the polio vaccine. Polio is transmitted through contaminated water and food or contact with an infected person and in recent years can be especially prevalent in unvaccinated children in underprivileged countries.
Zuke is currently a member of the St. Louis Civilians Satellite Rotary Club. Further information is available on that club’s Facebook page or the Rotary International website, https://raise.rotary.org.