Cusicks (and Rotary International) vs. Polio: A local couple is helping eradicate an ancient virus

Chuck and Nancy Cusick are out to change the world, one vaccine at a time.
For more than 20 years, the Cusicks have traveled the world as they work to help Rotary International reach its goal of eradicating polio.

According to the CDC, polio, or poliomyelitis, 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 paralysis. Polio can impact people of any age, but mainly affects children 5 and younger. To learn more, visit the CDC website.

For most Americans, polio seems like a disease of the past. Understandably so, as the US has been polio-free since the late 1970s. However, in 2022, a young unvaccinated adult in Rockway County, NY, was paralyzed from polio. Wastewater samplings found the virus in the water supplies in five counties. Learn more on the CDC website.

The Cusick’s international travels with Rotary didn’t begin with polio. They participated in an Adopt-a-Village project in Guatemala during the early 2000s. They later attended a Rotary-sponsored informational program on polio. There, a man told his stories about traveling to help with polio vaccination.

A nurse by trade and a caregiver at heart, Nancy felt called to get involved. She took the plunge and joined a National Immunization Day event in Niger, Africa.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says.

“Fortunately, I was going with a group of healthcare providers, so they had a little more exposure to hospital settings and had been around children who had contracted polio. We had one day when we walked three miles out and three miles back, just to get the vaccines to a location where a nomadic family lived. It was just so amazing to me to see people living the way they did there and how happy they were. It truly was life changing for me.”

Her takeaways from the experience were so powerful that she and Chuck signed up to travel to Cairo, Egypt the following year.

Since then, the mission has only become more important to them.

Between the two of them, they’ve been on six trips to assist with polio vaccination.

On the trips, Chuck and Nancy provide support to the local healthcare providers. The Cusicks train new providers while documenting and recognizing their efforts.

“The people who live there and who day-in and day-out are administering the vaccines – those are the people who are really doing the work,” Nancy says.

“We’re there mostly to support them and recognize them for the work they’re doing. And it’s a thrill for them to have us there. They’re really diligent about it and it’s very important to them that their children be polio-free.”

One of Nancy’s most memorable moments was from her first trip to Niger. After Nancy and the other volunteers had finished administering the vaccines, one of the residents showed her appreciation. The woman was cooking a pot of millet, which are black seeds that are a major dietary staple in Niger. The woman extended her arm to Nancy and offered her a bowl.

“It just broke my heart – she had the most beautiful smile on her face. I will never in my life forget her smile of gratitude. And that she had nothing, and yet was offering me the little that she did have.”

After a trip to Nigeria, Rotary approached Chuck about joining its Polio Committee. He’s been known as “Mr. Polio” ever since. Now, when he’s not on a vaccination mission, Chuck visits organizations to advocate for polio eradication. He explains the cause, raises awareness, and raises funds during those visits.

When looking back on the impact they’ve made, it brings smiles to both of their faces.

“Countries like Niger – where Nancy first went – they’re free of polio now,” Chuck says.

“All of Africa, all of India are polio free. It’s kind of cool to know that you’ve helped with that. And I think there were close to 1,000 cases in Nigeria and then, just a few years later, there were zero. So, it’s pretty exciting to have been a part of that.”

While their missions largely focused on polio, but they also did other work while traveling.

The groups they’ve gone with have also facilitated construction of water catchment systems and wells. The education and training they provide also helps communities combat the spread of other diseases such as measles and typhoid.

While the wild virus is now contained to primarily two countries, Chuck and Nancy do not have plans to travel to either.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Western travelers are not often well received. Rotary has partnered with local leaders in these areas to train them on identifying signs of polio in infants. Many imams and other Islamic leaders now understand the proper channels to follow to investigate and prevent further outbreak.

Through all of it, Nancy and Chuck’s humility shines through. As Nancy says, “We didn’t save the world. There’s much to be done.”

And, when asked how much longer they plan to stay involved with this cause, Chuck says, “Until it’s completely eradicated.”

Rotary’s goal is to certify that the world is wild poliovirus-free and validating the absence of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus by the end of 2026.

Rotary International has been involved with the eradication of polio since 1988. When they partnered with the World Health Organization to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there were an estimated 350,000 cases in 125 countries. Learn more about the efforts on the Rotary International website.

Rotary does not pay for volunteers to travel internationally. The dollars that are donated are used to produce vaccines and to work through the logistics of administering them in some of the world’s toughest conditions.

To support the cause of polio eradication, check out https://www.rotarybaycity.org/page/give. More information about current updates with outbreaks and progress can be found at www.polioeradication.org.

Chuck Cusick is available to speak to groups to share the message as well. He can be contacted at cvcusick@aol.com.