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The Fight To Eradicate Polio’s Not Over, And Ramesh Ferris Wants Us To Finish The Job
January 19, 2013
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Ramesh Ferris is passionate about eradicating polio around the world. And when you hear his story, it's easy to understand why.

Ramesh was born in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India. When he was six months old, he contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. His mother, having no access to rehabilitation or care for her son, placed him in a Canadian-founded orphanage a year after he contracted the disease.

A little while later, Ramesh was adopted by a Canadian family who brought him to the Yukon Territory. His international adoption was the first one ever to take place in the Yukon.

Once he was living in Canada, Ramesh had access to medical care. After several operations at Vancouver's Children's Hospital, he learned to walk with crutches and braces at the age of three and a half.

In 2002, Ramesh returned to India where he met his biological mother for the first time. While he was there, he saw things that would change his life.

"I got a glimpse of what my life might have been like if I had not been put up for adoption," he told us. "I was horrified to see a young polio survivor in his twenties crawling in the dirt begging, with sandals on his hands and ripped-up pieces of tire on his knees.

"When I saw that, I vowed that I would not allow this to happen to anyone else," he says.


In 2008, Ramesh demonstrated his commitment to ending polio by hand-cycling across Canada.

"I was lucky because I received the care I needed, but seeing the horrendous impact of this disease on others compelled me to hand-cycle across Canada," he told us. "My heroes Terry Fox and Rick Hansen also served as a source of inspiration. Despite their disabilities, both of these men undertook ambitious athletic endeavours to raise awareness about important causes."

Ramesh's own endeavour was certainly ambitious: he cycled 7,140 kms, and raised $300,000 in the process.


And last September, he stood with Bill Gates, the presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, Canada's Minister for International Cooperation Julian Fantino, and others at the UN General Assembly, as they pledged commitments to end polio.

The primary message is clear: "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to eradicate polio once and for all," Ramesh says. "We are 99 per cent of the way there, with the fewest number of polio cases in the fewest countries ever.

"We have an opportunity to ensure that no child anywhere is ever crippled again by this disease."

ramesh-rukshar.jpgEarlier this month, Ramesh travelled to India, a country that was once at the heart of the polio epidemic, but which reported its last infection over two years ago.

While he was there, he visited Rukhsar Khatoon (with Ramesh in the picture to the left), a three-year-old girl who is the last child in the country known to have contracted polio.

"Meeting Rukshar was very powerful for me," Ramesh says. "We were both crippled by polio because we did not receive vaccines that could've protected us... My hope is that Rukshar will be the last child in India to ever contract polio."

According to Time magazine, authorities once believed that India would be the last country in the world to become polio-free.

Back in 1988, 350,000 people contracted the disease each year around the world, and many of those cases were in India.

There are only 223 new cases of polio reported worldwide last year. A few of those cases were reported in Niger and Chad, with the remainder occurring in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where polio has never been eradicated.

ramesh-vaccine.jpgThe successful eradication of polio in India came about thanks to the introduction of a simple oral vaccine, along with "consistent and strong political will as well as international coordination," the Time article says.

But the fight against the disease is far from over. Last December in Pakistan, nine polio workers were shot and killed. It's not clear who carried out the attacks - the Pakistani Taliban have said they're against the polio vaccination program, but a spokesman told Reuters that the group was not involved.

Whoever is responsible, the killings made it clear that some groups oppose government-sponsored vaccination programs in the country.

Hesitation about the oral vaccine is still widespread in some places. On a trip to Pakistan, Ramesh climbed six flights of stairs to meet with a family on the top floor of a building.

They were hesitant to give their kids a vaccine. He talked them around, and administered the vaccine himself.

While India seems to be polio-free at the moment, it's still on the march in nearby countries. And that means, Ramesh says, India and surrounding countries need to stay vigilant and continue to vaccinate children.

"People need to know that polio is not a disease of the past," Ramesh told us. "It is still a daily reality for families in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

"We must all do our part to end polio because no country or child is safe from polio as long as it exists somewhere in the world."

Canada has always been a leader in the global polio eradication effort, contributing more than CAD $347 million since 1985. Additionally, Rotary International has donated over a billion US dollars to the effort.

Ramesh offered some tips on what Canadians can do to help the fight against polio:

"Canadians can help raise awareness on our unique opportunity to end polio by sharing messages about polio eradication through our communications networks and newsletters, Twitter and Facebook

"We can also write local policymakers and encourage them to continue supporting efforts to end polio forever."

For updates on the fight and what Ramesh is doing, you can follow him on Twitter @RameshFerris.


New Attacks Against Anti-Polio Workers In Pakistan Raise Number Of People Killed To 8 In 48 Hours

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