For over 35 years, polio eradication has been a primary initiative of Rotary International. In countries where polio is considered eradicated, like the United States, it is easy to dismiss polio as a non-threat, despite the fact polio is still endemic in two countries and outbreaks continue to happen around the world. However, polio is a disease that can and must be eradicated worldwide, but to do so, we need to remember its past.
One overlooked and often unknown piece of polio history in the United States is the Infantile Paralysis Center, which opened in the 1940s at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). The Center was created and staffed by Black healthcare professionals and was the only facility in the United States that exclusively treated Black polio patients – a critical need in the segregated South. Perhaps just as critically as providing treatment for Black patient polio, Tuskegee was also home to the Black researchers who played a pivotal role in the development of the first polio vaccine. A vaccine that changed the course of history in the fight against polio in the United States and around the world.
As a part of World Polio Day 2023, we wanted to share this extraordinary story of Black resilience and achievement at the Infantile Paralysis Center with a wider audience than just Rotary members. The hope was that by sharing stories of polio’s past, it would show viewers the importance of supporting polio eradication in the present.
Building on an article Rotary magazine published in June 2023 on the Infantile Paralysis Center at Tuskegee and a bronze statue dedicated to the Center that was commissioned by Rotary District 6880, we set out to create a three-part video series to tell the story of the Center, it’s workers and patients, and their legacy in the history of polio eradication.
Using the contacts Rotary’s magazine team established with key staff at Tuskegee University, we arranged a multi-day shoot at Tuskegee’s Legacy Museum, housed in the former building of the Infantile Paralysis Center. As this was both an important piece of polio history and Black history, we wanted to make sure to center Black voices as much as possible. We brought on social influencer, author, and philanthropist, Rachel Cargle – whose mother was also a polio survivor – to serve as the host of the first two videos. She interviewed Tuskegee staff members to share the history and impact the Center had on the Black community. She also interviewed Rotary members who played a key role in the commissioning of the memorial statue. For the survivor story, Myron Thompson, who was treated for polio at the Center as a child and now serves as a U.S. District Court Judge for the Middle District of Alabama, shared his experience as a patient at the Center and how polio changed his life.
Though the location of the story is in the U.S., we wanted the story to be accessible to a global audience. We provided subtitles in 8 languages for all the videos and made them publicly available for download on our endpolio.org website. We aired the videos on Rotary’s social media channels – which included the flagship Rotary and End Polio Now channels, which are in English, as well as Rotary’s French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese language channels.
The videos were released bi-weekly, with the final one featuring Judge Thompson airing on World Polio Day (October 24th). We also ran a paid YouTube campaign with Judge Thompson’s video from October 24th – November 12th with a call to action that would lead users to our endpolio.org website to learn more about polio and how they can help support polio eradication efforts.
The videos had over 11 million video views (organic and paid). In addition, the videos were engaged with by major foundations, non-profits, and public health organizations such as the Global Citizen, the US Centers for Disease Control, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We viewed this as a successful activation as our videos reached far beyond Rotary’s membership (which totals 1.4 million members worldwide).