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Polio, the Victims - 2002-11-22

This is the fourth in a five-part series on global polio eradication, based on interviews in Washington, in Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and at National Immunization Days in northern Nigeria.

Polio is on its way out. A global polio eradication program launched in 1988 by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aims to wipe out the disease by 2005. But an estimated 20 million polio survivors worldwide have been left to cope with the virus's crippling legacy.

Since the polio eradication effort began 14 years ago, two billion children in 94 countries have been vaccinated against the disease. Last year alone, the vaccine reached 575 million children. The World Health Organization puts the price tag for these efforts at $3 billion through 2005. The money isn't guaranteed. WHO is currently trying to bridge a $275 million funding gap.

Support for the campaign has come from national governments, international agencies, and other major partners. Rotary International, through its service clubs in 163 countries, is the largest private donor, contributing $493 million, with promises to raise another 80 million more by the end of 2003.

Ade Adefeso, chairman of the Rotary campaign in Nigeria, one of the few remaining polio endemic countries, said there are powerful incentives to stop polio. "When polio is eradicated we will be saving $1.5 billion per year," he said. "That's the money we could have spent on infrastructure, and this money will be used to address other diseases."

John Kenny, a trustee of Rotary International from Scotland, was in Nigeria to monitor National Immunization Days. "No longer do we see in certain parts of the world children crawling on their knees," he said. "We have been able to save them. Since 1988 until 2005, the number of children we have saved is certainly over five million."

Ellen Thompson is among the world's 20 million polio survivors. Crippled by polio at age five, Ms. Thompson is a leading advocate for the disabled in Nigeria, many of whom are polio victims. She said people with disabilities face hostility and rejection. Many are unemployed and resort to street begging. Their children, she said, become able-bodied beggars. "And as a person with disabilities, I interact with them, talk to them, and [work on] how we can get assistance to train these children, because they don't know anything," she said. "In the morning, they take their mom and dad to the street and then back again the next morning."

Ellen Thompson, who has walked with arm braces her whole life, has a university degree and a good job as a training officer in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. She says disabled people deserve equal rights and equal access and works to make that happen.

She visited an open-air repair shop located on the side of a busy highway in Kano, a major city in the northern part of the country. About 30 men and boys, all polio victims, meet there regularly to adapt vehicles for people with disabilities. They install hand pedals on tricycles and retrofit cars and motor bikes with hand controls.

"Why we adapted the tricycle is to suit our Nigerian roads," explained Ms. Thompson. "The roads are rough and there is no [separate lane]. And the collapsible wheel chair is only good where there are accessible ramps where you can move freer, and that is why they sat down and decided to adapt this tricycle."

Ellen Thompson said by doing this they help themselves, and they help others. "They are people who want to do something for the disabled, who must start something for themselves," she said, "and that is why they are bringing their talents together here on their own. They manufacture these things to alleviate their own plight."

What kinds of jobs do these people have? "Some of them are carpenters by profession. Some of them are welders," said Ms. Thompson. "They work in the local governments, the state governments. Some are businessmen and shoemakers, but they spare the time to come together whenever they can do something for their fellow person, to encourage, to meet somebody to talk to."

This is the post-polio world for Ellen Thompson - a world with less poverty, where children are routinely immunized for preventable diseases, and where the disabled are judged by their ability - what they can do.

In part 5, we'll examine the impact of the polio eradication campaign on global efforts to wipe out other childhood diseases.

Photos for this series provided by Rosanne Skirble