Seattle — In the 1940s and 1950s, the Marching Mothers of the March of Dimes knocked on countless doors, raising the money to treat and research polio, ten cents at a time. Their efforts funded the first polio vaccine. In 1980, 25 years after the world had a vaccine for polio, there was a very different knock on the door. A woman named Lakshmi stood at the door of the Families for Children orphanage in Tamil Nadu, India, with a six-month-old baby named Ramesh, whose legs dangled like spaghetti. Knowing she had no ability to care for a child living with the effects of polio, she gave me up in the hopes that I would find the help I required. Eventually, I was the first international adoption in the Yukon Territory, and grew up with the best medical care available. I would come to understand just how devastating this disease can be, and how much of an impact I could have on changing the course of polio for those communities still devastated by it.
In 2002, I returned to India to meet my biological mother for the first time. It was during this visit that I got a glimpse of what my life might have been like if I had not been put up for adoption. I was horrified to see a young man 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. I don't believe any person in our global community should be doomed to live in dirt.
Polio is a disease which continues to affect people but, after my visit to India, I was determined to see the end of polio in my lifetime. I was lucky because I received the care I needed but seeing the horrendous impact of this disease on others compelled me to create, Cycle to Walk Canada, a program designed to raise funds for polio eradication and rehabilitation. In 2008 I hand-cycled 4,400 miles across Canada and raised $300,000, not to mention awareness, along the way.
Why is this important now? Today is World Polio Day. It is a day to reflect on our accomplishments and look at the road ahead. During my lifetime, I've witnessed amazing progress against polio. In 1988, there were 350,000 new cases of polio annually in 125 countries; today, we're down to just Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan, and just 171 cases so far this year. India is officially off the polio endemic list. We are truly on our final 1% - but we cannot stop there. There should never be another child born who will need to crawl around on cut-up pieces of tire.
In July, I visited Karachi, Pakistan. A local UNICEF team asked for my help with a group of parents that had refused the vaccine for two years.
With the assistance of my brace and two forearm crutches, I climbed to the top floor of a six-story apartment complex. After I knocked, I explained to the family the importance of the vaccine, and I showed them my legs. After an endless moment, the door opened, and I got to personally administer the vaccine to the children.
Every day, I am reminded about the effects of polio in my life. Global polio eradication would not only be a personal victory, but it would ensure that no child would ever again have to suffer from the disease.
World Polio Day is one day - but there is so much we can do, as a global community, to keep fighting every day. Raising awareness and funds to help those regions still afflicted with polio is critical. We all have a role to play. Let us come together on World Polio Day, and every day, and let's end polio now.