As World Immunisation Week draws to a close, we can rightly reflect on the huge strides made in so many places to tackle preventable diseases. But there is a danger in this, too.
Here in the UK, it’s all too easy to think that a diseases like measles or polio are footnotes in history, reminders of a time where preventable diseases were still a terrible blight on so many people.
For me, though, polio is something else entirely – because I am a polio survivor.
Polio has shaped the person I am today in a myriad of ways; and while it led to my becoming a Team GB Paralympian wheelchair racer, the impact on my formative years was extraordinarily hard.
I was born in Mihu, Kenya, and was a fit and healthy two-year-old when I contracted polio. The stigma attached to polio caused a trauma that was, in retrospect, as unfair as it was unforgiving. Fellow villagers, guided by little more than superstition, believed my family was cursed. We were forced to flee to my father’s military barracks in Nairobi. Instead of compassion, the lack of education and understanding brought only suspicion. To this day, attitudes like this towards diseases such as polio remain all too common across much of the African continent.
I was fortunate to attend a specialist school from the age of five, but once I reached my mainstream secondary school, things went downhill fast. Inaccessible in a multitude of ways, school quickly became a daily struggle. The things that most kids rightly take for granted were a huge struggle, from simply attending class or going to the toilet.
But throughout it all, it was my father who kept telling me that education was the magical key to unlock life’s opportunities. His support stopped me from throwing in the towel, and alongside my lived experience of dealing with polio has led me to campaign on behalf of people living with disabilities like mine across the globe.
That’s why, during World Immunisation Week, I cannot overstate how vital it is for people here in the UK to join the fight to make that one last push we need to eradicate polio for good. The disease now only exists in three endemic countries; we have both the means and the knowledge to be able to truly make polio a thing of the past. We simply cannot fail to rise to the challenge.
Nothing would bring me more joy than to know that I lived to see the day when no child will ever again have to suffer in the ways that my family and I did.
So, on this most important of weeks, raise your voice, join Rotarians and other organisations, donate what you can and keep banging the drum for to ensure the UK government – and governments around the world step up their efforts to eradicate polio.
Our prize is an extraordinary one: a polio free world. Let’s not let this opportunity go to waste.
You can sign up to help end polio on One Last Push’s website here.