(reprinted with permission from the Faribault Daily News)

Faribault Rotarian Richard “Dick” Huston has traveled around the globe, but he called his most recent trip to Pakistan the most challenging of his life — both physically and emotionally.

After spending the week of Nov. 11-17 in Karachi, Pakistan, which has a population twice the size of New York City, Huston returned to Faribault eager to share his experience. In fact, Pakistani campaigners declared spreading awareness one of Huston’s primary roles for their cause.

“I hadn’t been there, and I just think we need to help people,” said Huston on his reasons for taking the trip. “I want to tell their story and encourage others to help them, also.”

As part of Rotary PolioPlus services, Huston expected representatives of other Rotary clubs to join his effort to learn about the endemic in Pakistan. He previously took a trip to Sierra Leone with a group of six Rotarians, but much to his surprise, Huston was the lone American to join the Karachi, Pakistan, polio campaign.

Huston admitted being the only American “felt a little weird” at first, but after a while he joked that being the only guest “felt pretty darn good.”

“Everywhere we went, people were so nice and gracious,” said Huston.

          Eradicating polio

PolioPlus is a four-pronged worldwide effort to eliminate polio with vaccinations. Huston explained the four purposes of the cause include preventing the disease, providing clean water, creating jobs and improving healthcare.

Polio once impacted 125 countries, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the vaccination of millions of children since the 1980s has reduced the number of impacted countries down to three: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In the 1988, there were 350,000 cases of polio reported worldwide.

Houston said eradicating polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan is more difficult because people travel back and forth across the bordering countries often. According to UNICEF, polio cases in Pakistan have decreased from 20,000 per year in the early 1990s to just eight in 2018 since Pakistan’s Polio Eradication Programme launched in 1994.

Primarily a disease of children, Huston explained the symptoms of leg and/or arm paralysis indicate the first symptoms of polio. If the lungs experience paralysis, the disease can be fatal.

While overseas, Huston visited five sites where nurses vaccinated children for polio. The process, he said, was a matter of putting two drops of liquid vaccine on the tongue. But in the city of Karachi, which has approximately 15.4 million people, identifying all children under 5 who need vaccinations is a tremendous undertaking for nurses and aid workers.

Huston explained that a lot of negative propaganda makes mothers wary about exposing their children to vaccines. But nurses trained in psychology assure mothers their babies and children will be healthier with the vaccine. Huston witnessed mothers looking “like a deer in the headlights” at first, but he saw their eyes soften as they listened to the nurses.

“There’s no bullying at all,” he said.

Nurses also go to railway stations and go through the trains at their stops to identify children under 5 who need to be vaccinated. At a bus stop located along Karachi’s main highway, near the southern border of Pakistan, Huston said nurses vaccinate around 3,000 children per day. He shadowed a couple nurses on the job and marveled at their effort.

While visiting Pakistan, Huston saw nurses being trained to give vaccine injections for a new project. In certain past cases, Huston explained the virus sampling, used in vaccines to create an immunity to polio, backfired by mutating into a disease. Viruses used in the injection, however, are first killed so they can’t mutate into disease-causing organisms. Children between 5 and 13 may receive the injection, said Huston.

Other efforts have been made to prevent polio from spreading. Since polio is spread by water and food, Huston said 17 water filtration camps were installed in the area he visited. Open two hours a day, residents can come fill their jugs with clean water.

       Making connections

More was expected of Huston on his trip, being the only guest, but after his return he said he experienced “a good feeling of being worn out.”

While his trip was taxing in the sense that he was constantly busy, Huston was pleased with the hospitality of his host family and impressed with the Pakistani Rotarians’ generosity. Although residents of Karachi had all levels of income in an area with some of the worst slums Huston has seen, he said people with money share it.

“It was really an eye-opening trip,” said Huston. “The effort the ‘haves’ are making to help the ‘have-nots’ is truly remarkable in my mind.”

The appreciation was mutual. In the November issue of the Pakistan National PolioPlus Newsletter, Chief Editor Alina A. Visram wrote about Huston’s participation in the Karachi polio campaign.

“This was his first visit to Karachi, Pakistan, and he was a keen visitor,” wrote Visram. “… It was certainly a privilege and honour to have Dr. Richard Huston with us in Karachi and we thank him for making this trip.”