Many in North America and Europe who don’t share my experience have forgotten the impact of polio. But in a handful of countries in Africa and Asia, children are still at risk and suffering from this terrible disease.
In 2002, I returned to India to meet my biological mother and caught a glimpse of what life is like for these children, and what my life might have been if I had not been adopted. I met polio survivors who, without medical interventions, were forced to pad their knees with tyre just to crawl on the ground.
Since then, I have dedicated my life to raising awareness about polio eradication. Five years ago, I spent six months hand-cycling across Canada, speaking about polio to local communities on my way.
As an international advocate for polio eradication and a Rotarian, I continue to share my story and educate parents about the importance of vaccines. In Pakistan, I worked with a UNICEF team, traveling door-to-door to speak with parents who refused to vaccinate their children. At each house, I showed the families my legs so they were able to see the truly debilitating effect polio can have and encouraged them to vaccinate their children.
I’m excited to say that, this May, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched a Strategic Plan to wipe out the disease by 2018. We have a critical opportunity now to finish the job, and I hope we seize it. India, where I contracted the disease, was once considered the hardest place to end polio, but has been polio-free for over two years. The incredible progress in the three endemic countries, especially Afghanistan, brings us closer to eradication than ever before. Yet the outbreak in the Horn of Africa, and the possible cases in Syria, remind us that children everywhere will continue to be at risk until we take advantage of this urgent opportunity.
The benefits of eradicating the disease extend far beyond polio. Through my travels, I’ve been continually impressed by what the polio programme has achieved: it prioritises strengthening immunisation systems, opening doors to deliver other life-saving vaccines. The programme is constantly working and finding new ways to reach children in remote areas to provide not just polio vaccines, but measles vaccines and vitamin A. That knowledge will continue to advance other health initiatives long after polio is gone.
Eradicating polio will be an extraordinary public health success, paving the way for continued progress protecting the lives of children globally. The finish line is in sight, and I hope the world joins me in seeing the task through.