By Ramesh Ferris, a member of the Rotary Club of Whitehorse-Rendezvous, Yukon, Canada
This month, around the second anniversary of India going polio-free, I traveled to southern India to meet my biological father for the first time. Rotary International also arranged for me to meet another special person, Rukhsar Khatoon, who at 13-months of age, contracted the last reported case of polio in India in 2011.
Ever since the polio vaccine became available in 1955, there have been many “lasts” on various continents: a child in Peru in 1991 contracted the last case of polio in the Americas; a child in Cambodia in 1997 had the last case reported in the Pacific region; and Turkey in 1998 reported the last case in Europe.
On the flight from Canada, I was excited to meet young Rukhsar, one polio survivor to another. It took five flights to reach Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, where I was warmly welcomed by Rotarian Rajkumar Rajgaria, one of the millions who have put so much time, energy, and money into a polio-free world. Raj and I joined another dedicated member of the RI PolioPlus staff, Nima, and we drove over an hour to the outskirts of the city.
There concrete gave way to open space, a place beyond which no four-wheel vehicle could go. I was asked to make myself comfortable on the second seat of a motorcycle. I was full of emotion – excitement, nervousness, fear of falling – as I faced my first ever motorcycle ride. But I knew the benefits outweighed the risks, so we pushed on through paddy fields, over small river streams, and by clusters of small shanty houses some distance from one another.
The motorcycle finally came to a stop 20 minutes later before a small pond with a few thatched houses around it. Rukhsar lives in a two-room structure with her parents and two brothers. Within no time, the little courtyard was brimming with people – neighbors, passersby, media.
I took my seat on a plastic chair and Rukhsar sat on my lap, while I talked to her father about her paralysis and its onset. He shared how the flaccidness in her limb began and got worse, her struggle with fever, and how doctors confirmed it was polio. He and his wife had felt helpless and hopeless. I told him my story, showed him my leg brace, and assured him of the possibilities for his daughter, even with polio paralysis. He shared how, after constant visits from Rotarians, he is now part of polio awareness efforts in his village and he uses Rukhsar’s story to convince families reluctant to get their children vaccinated.
Wide-eyed, Rukhsar soaked in the attention with bewilderment. Had she been a bit older, I would have shared my story with her. But after a few minutes, Rukhsar left me unceremoniously to return to her mother. I could see that her polio-affected leg was less scarred than many of us and that she was not yet dependent on a crutch and wasn’t even crawling. I hoped and prayed the after-effects of the paralysis, which get worse with age, will be less severe for her.
After most of the media left, I convinced Rukhsar and her mother to walk toward the pond, leaving the crowd behind. Rukhsar perched on a log with her mother and I, posing for pictures, as we collectively congratulated India on going two years without another reported case of polio. Tucked to her mother’s side, she remained unperturbed as she stood there receiving the attention, before finally looking at the camera innocently as if to say ‘enough.’ So we let her be.
It is up to us to ensure Rukhsar remains the last case in India. India needs to go one more year without a reported case to be certified polio-free by the World Health Organization (WHO). This calls for vigilance and continued devotion to the cause.
On my return journey, I could not help but think about the significance of this young child, who could serve to strengthen the resolve of the global community and the partners in polio eradication, to push on for a polio-free world even while facing challenges in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I left Kolkata hoping there will soon be a Rukhsar in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and in Nigeria. And finally, a “last” for the entire earth.