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Pedaling away polio

Hillsboro men take fight against disease on the road with biking fundraiser


Hal Ballard and his son, Bilbo, traveled nearly 3,000 miles to help combat a problem halfway around the world.

The problem is one seldom heard about these days in the United States: Polio. It’s a disease that was a serious health issue for Americans several decades ago, and Hal Ballard, who is 66, remembers that time well.by: COURTESY PHOTOS - Hal Ballard (left) and his son, Bilbo, take a break from cycling while in Mountain Home, Idaho, to snap a photo from their cross-country bike tour. In the inset photos, Hal and Bilbo display the Rotary International End Polio Now t-shirts they wore on their tour.

“I had an aunt who had polio and friends who had polio,” said Ballard, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. “It was very real to us. It was very real in our lives.”

Those who saw its impacts never forgot, because it was a debilitating disease. In children under age 5, paralysis of one leg is a common symptom with those who contract the polio virus. In adults, paralysis of both arms and legs is typical, and the muscles that control urination and breathing can also be affected.

But a dedicated inoculation campaign has virtually done away with polio as a health threat in most of the world.

“Polio has been eradicated in the United States,” said Ballard, who lives in Hillsboro. “The countries where it is endemic are Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, and you can guess why — because of the refugee situation. It spreads rapidly, and children are its target. Although we don’t hear much about polio any more in the United States, the battle to totally eradicate the disease is ongoing.

“Ninety-nine percent of the world is polio-free, and we’re this close to eradicating it worldwide.”

Ballard is a member of Rotary International, an organization that has spearheaded efforts to eradicate polio around the globe, and that helped motivate him to do a pledge drive based on a cross-country bicycle trip.

Rotary International and its partners have massively reduced the number of polio cases in the world since the first Rotary project to vaccinate children in the Philippines in 1979.

Doug Taylor, a Rotary district governor-elect, said despite widely successful efforts to eliminate polio, the disease still can’t be taken lightly.

“The U.S. has been polio-free for years, but unfortunately, outbreaks do occur in non-polio countries since inoculations are not universal,” Taylor explained. “And polio is literally a plane ride away for anyone who has not kept up with their inoculations.”

Taylor said Rotary has worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to battle polio.

“I have been passionate about this cause for years,” said Taylor. “We find many baby boomer folks in the community who remember vividly seeing relatives with polio and iron lungs, etc.”

Ballard is the founder of the Washington County Bicycle Transportation Coalition, an organization with a mission to promote bicycle transportation and protect bicyclists’ rights. He has always enjoyed biking, and was planning a lengthy trip when the idea of tying it to an effort to battle polio came up.

“I was going to do this trip anyway, and one of our Rotary members said, ‘have you thought of doing a fundraiser?’” Ballard recalled. “We thought it was something to appeal to a broader audience.”

So Ballard and his son decided on a cross-country bicycle “odyssey” that would take them from the Tualatin River in Hillsboro to the banks of the Ohio River in Kentucky, a distance of 2,900 miles. They chose their route to allow them to visit friends and relatives along the way in cities such as Emmett, Idaho; Omaha, Neb.; and Louisville, Ky.

“We wanted to visit friends, reconnect with family members and meet with Rotarians and other groups along the way, spreading the message that ‘60 cents makes you a hero,’ ” Ballard explained.

Sixty cents is the cost of the vaccine that can save the life of a child susceptible to the ravages of polio.

The father and son duo headed out on April 20, with Bilbo turning 39 the day they started their journey.

“It was a mid-life thing with him,” the elder Ballard joked.

But the cyclists’ mission was deadly serious, and they pedaled exactly 2,901 miles in 55 days.

“We’d go 75-mile days on average,” Ballard explained. “Then the wind shifted from behind us to a headwind, and we went 50, 45, 40 miles a day.”

The miles were far from easy.

“When we first started out, Santiam Pass and Tombstone Pass in the Oregon Cascades proved ‘walkable,’” Ballard said. “We weren’t in the shape we thought we were. We each carried 250 pounds of gear, and when walking our bikes it was like pushing a motorcycle up a hill.”

Still, despite bitter cold at times and even a hailstorm or two, Ballard never thought about complaining.

“What we endured was no comparison to a life of suffering from polio,” said Ballard.

The two men didn’t want to spend much on motels, so they stopped at campgrounds or wherever they could find shelter during the nights.

“We had tents and everything; we were fully equipped,” Ballard said.

Ballard said 83 people pledged a penny or more for every mile the father and son team traveled. All the funds went to Rotary’s “End Polio Now” campaign, and by the end, Hal and Bilbo Ballard had raised $2,700. That figure was then matched — $2 to every $1 — by the Gates Foundation, bringing the final total to $8,100.

As much as he and his son enjoyed the long-haul bike journey, Ballard said making it a round trip was never seriously considered.

“We flew back to Oregon,” he laughed.

Taylor said he was proud Rotary was taking a major role in the fight against polio, and he put Rotary’s campaign in a human perspective.

“To abandon this effort would be a tragedy,” Taylor said. “An analogy that comes to mind is that it would be like Neil Armstrong returning to the (lunar orbiting) vehicle without stepping on the moon!”




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