Although most Americans think of polio as a thing of the past, it's a disease of the present for many people. Plenty of prominent Americans are polio survivors, including actor Alan Alda, director Francis Ford Coppola, and senator Mitch McConnell. You've probably heard of their accomplishments, so let's look at five more people living with polio in America and around the world—and why their work to end polio is at a crucial moment.
1. Ramesh Ferris, Polio Crusader (Canada)
Ramesh Ferris was born in India in 1979, and he contracted polio when he was just six months old. His mother couldn't take care of him, and placed him in an orphanage a year later. A Canadian family adopted him, gave him top-notch medical care, and Ferris learned to walk (with the aid of crutches and braces). Eventually he returned to India to meet his biological mother, and there he saw the effects of polio on the poor:
"The meeting with my mother was emotional and I was very happy. But what changed my life forever was the moment I saw a polio survivor crawling on the road with the help of [tires]. I was shocked and just thought to myself if I hadn't got any treatment, I would have been crawling to survive too," he said.
Ferris dedicated his life to polio eradication. In 2008 he founded the Cycle to Walk Canada event, and hand-cycled 4,400 miles across Canada to raise awareness (and money). The journey took 174 days. Along the way, he conducted interviews, spoke to community groups, and raised over $300,000. He then wrote a memoir, Better Than a Cure, One Man’s Journey to Free the World of Polio, donating the proceeds to Rotary PolioPlus for a Polio Free World. (Rotarians are major supporters of polio eradication efforts.)
Ramesh's work is not done yet. In 2013 he wrote, "[P]olio isn’t just a grandparents’ disease – I’m a 33-year-old survivor. In my other home country, India, memories of its debilitating effects are still fresh, and in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, polio fears remain a daily reality. That’s why I’ve made it my life goal to achieve a polio-free world."
2. Dennis Ogbe, Paralympian (United States)
Dennis Ogbe contracted polio at age 3 in his birth country of Nigeria. Despite being paralyzed in one leg, he grew up to become a Paralympic athlete, competing in track and field—he took home a gold medal when he competed in 2000. Now living in Kentucky, Ogbe has made it onto the US team. In addition to his athletic accomplishments, Ogbe holds an MBA. He lives in Louisville with his wife and daughter, and has earned a bunch of medals.
Here's a nice profile from his local news station:
3. Qari Aqeel, Teacher (Pakistan)
Qari Aqeel teaches at a Pakistani madrasa. Pakistan is one of three remaining countries where polio is endemic, and the situation for aid workers there is grim. Here's a short video in which Aqeel explains his story, and why he works to combat polio.
4. Ade Adepitan, Wheelchair Basketball Great and Broadcaster (United Kingdom)
Ade Adepitan was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and contracted polio as an infant. His family moved to the UK when he was 3 years old, where Adepitan discovered wheelchair basketball when he was 12. He played in the Paralympics, winning various medals, and has since become a TV personality in the UK. Here's a video telling his story:
In 2013, Adepitan returned to Nigeria, where kids are still getting polio. He wrote about his experience.
5. Minda Dentler, Ironman Triathlete (United States)
Paul Phillips / Competitive Image
Minda Dentler was born in India, where she contracted polio at a young age. She lived in an orphanage, until she was adopted by an American family and moved to Spokane, Washington. After surgery, she learned to walk with the assistance of braces and crutches.
In 2006, Dentler completed her first marathon, hand-cycling the whole way. But she didn't stop there—in the span of five years, she completed 10 marathons. From there she moved on to triathlons; to date, she has completed 14 Olympic triathlons and seven Half-Ironman triathlons. In 2013, Dentler became the first woman hand-cyclist to complete the Ironman in Kona, Hawaii. She wrote:
I added my name to the Ironman World Championship history books on October 12, 2013 with my 14:39:14 finish in Kona, becoming the first official woman handcyclist to complete this event, by swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean, handcycling 112 miles in heat and wind, and pushing a racing wheelchair 26.2 miles.
After her record-setting accomplishment, Dentler was profiled on CNN:
What's Next for Polio Eradication
India has made tremendous strides in fighting polio; in 2009, India accounted for nearly half of the world's new polio cases. Today, there are none. There have been no new cases of polio reported in India since January 13, 2011.
No new cases are expected, meaning India—and 10 other countries—will be certified polio-free in the next few months. This effort has taken more than a million people working together, including the people listed above. When that certifiation occurs, it will mean that all of Southeast Asia is polio-free; the world will then focus on the last three countries where polio is endemic: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
Here's a photo of Ramesh Ferris, the man from item #1 above, with a little girl named Ruksar. She is India's last wild polio patient.