Sunday, May 10, 2015

Being Reminded What Polio Means Today

This morning there was a news alert from the New York Times reporting that the UN was once again taking up polio and measles vaccinations in Liberia now that the country was free of Ebola. It is one of those real good news bad news days when the absence of one extremely deadly disease allows you to continue to work eradicating other less deadly but nearly as devastating diseases. As I have mentioned many times before, I have an ear tuned and an eye pealed for each and every reference to polio. It is that obsessive compulsive reflex that everyone who has ever been touched by a disease or disaster harbours for the rest of their lives.

During the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, late at night, after talking for two days about my book, I went to see the new documentary, Every Last Child. It is a fascinating film, funded by the United Arab Emirates and the Gates Foundation of the twists and turns, deaths and delays, hardship and hazards of trying to vaccinate every last child of Pakistan against polio. For a variety of reasons sections of Pakistani society are opposed to vaccinating children against polio, in particular elements of the Pakistani Taliban. In the documentary we are taken through various efforts to get the kids inoculated.

Two segments in particular struck chords in me and at times left me nearly in tears.

One involved a man in his late twenties, early thirties perhaps, who had little movement in or control of his legs. His efforts to move about, to take a shower, to find any employment, any community were heartbreaking. Years ago we visited India and numerous encounters with individuals crippled by disease, many probably by polio, left me at the time numb and understanding that all that separated me from them was truly dumb luck. I was fortunate to be born here; they were not. I lucked out, so to speak, in having access to a world-class health care system; they did not. Watching this man navigate the world left me strangely grateful for the opportunity to learn to walk three times. As hard as it has been to do so it pales in comparison to that man's daily life.

The other segment involved a young boy, a toddler who had been stricken suddenly with paralysis of the legs. Watching him be examined, be probed, watching technicians fit him with casts, fashion braces, prepare shoes and then watching physiotherapists try to show him how to walk in the braces was heartbreaking. Watching his father look on with near despair at what his son would have to learn to do, watching him worry aloud about what chance his son would have in Pakistani society without the use of his legs left me speechless. The truth that was beaming from the screen was like a sucker punch. It left me reeling inside. Tom Roberts' film is worth seeking out. The story is both powerful and urgent.

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