As a child growing up in Ireland in the 1980s, I had never seen polio or known a polio-survivor, or if I had, I hadn’t recognised it at the time because the disease was so rare in our part of the world. Now – through my six month placement in Ethiopia – my understanding of the polio virus and the significance of the quest for global eradication has shifted significantly.
Before I came to Ethiopia, polio to me was a photograph of a 1950s hospital ward filled with children lying motionless in large, cold iron-lungs. I thought it was a sad memory for a generation gone by. I had no idea how many men and women my own age and younger were living in parts of Africa and south Asia with irreversible limb damage. With joints and muscles so twisted and depleted they were beyond use.
In a country like Ethiopia where more than 85% of the population are employed in agriculture, to be without the use of a limb is devastating. Many survivors are marginalised. The ravages of the virus can be seen in towns and villages across the country, especially in the capital city of Addis Ababa. In Addis, I meet such survivors daily, in doorways and on street-corners, some with crutches, some without. For me, this is my new image of polio. Sadly for many people, it is a way of life.
The great news is that global eradication of polio is now a realistic goal. Ethiopia has a national vaccination programme and no new cases have been reported since 2006. But in other countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – the poliovirus remains endemic and needs to be addressed, while existing vaccination programmes in countries where the disease has been eradicated must be vigilantly maintained and monitored.
To make global eradication a reality, large scale immunisation campaigns are required in every country, and they should reach each and every child, including those isolated by geography, poverty and security.