Unto us a Child is Born
On 25 August 2020, after four years without a single case, the African region was certified free of wild polio virus.
In 1994, a few days after I arrived in the border town of Nimule in South Sudan, I woke in the night to a bone-chilling cry. It reminded me of an Irish caoineadh, a keening for the dead. In the morning I heard that a baby had died of measles. I was stunned. I knew, from book-learning, that measles can damage the nerves, the eyes, the ears, the brain. I knew in my head that measles can be fatal, but in my heart I still thought of it as a benign childhood disease.
The epidemic raged through the small town, taking the children who were weak, malnourished, immuno-compromised. Night after night I heard the songs of grief – five children dead, still more facing lifelong disability – and then silence. The epidemic had burned itself out.
I was in Nimule to train community health workers, and to help with a programme of immunisation. With a team of South Sudanese and Kenyan health workers, I visited local villages and camps. Everywhere we went we offered immunisation against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, tuberculosis and polio.
I met a young woman in one of the villages. She held her baby to her breast, in a wrap made out of a food sack. I asked how old her baby was. One week, she said. I asked if I could see. She unfolded the wrap and showed me her child. I can’t remember if it was a boy or a girl – I can’t remember the young woman’s name – I only remember her grace, her weathered hand holding her child, the newborn’s sleeping perfection. I asked the young woman if I could take a photograph of her baby. She said yes.
In 1994 an estimated 75,000 children across Africa were paralysed for life by the polio virus. Thousands of those children died when the virus paralysed their breathing muscles. Nelson Mandela, the recently elected president of South Africa, refused to accept this ongoing tragedy. “When people are determined,” he said, “they can overcome anything.” In 1996, in partnership with Rotary International, Mandela launched the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” campaign. Footballs with the slogan showed up everywhere – in stadiums, in school yards, on dusty soccer pitches. Communities, parents, health workers, volunteers, churches, mosques, governments, donors – they all came together, united by one aim – to immunise every child on the continent against this crippling disease.
On 25 August 2020, after four years without a single case, the 47 countries in the Africa region of the World Health Organisation were certified free of the wild polio virus. Today, because of the committed work of thousands of health workers and volunteers, more than 18 million people are able to walk, people who would otherwise have been paralysed by the virus.
But the fight against polio in Africa isn’t over yet. In Ireland, children are given an injectable vaccine that contains a dead form of the virus. This injectable form is expensive. Less well-off countries have to use an oral vaccine which contains an weakened form of the virus. In very rare circumstances this weakened virus can itself cause polio.
And so, although a huge milestone has been reached, immunisation and outbreak surveillance continue, and efforts are underway to make the injectable form of the virus available to everyone, everywhere. The journey continues, until the day when polio, like smallpox, is completely eradicated from the face of the earth.
That photo I took of the mother and her newborn has stayed with me over the years. I keep it close, on the door of my fridge, tucked into a diary, pinned to a corkboard.
I imagine this child grown to adulthood – I like that I don’t know whether it’s a girl or a boy – not knowing increases my sense of the possible lives this child may have led. I imagine that the infant in the photograph is a parent now, with children of their own. I imagine a baby, grandchild to the mother in the photograph, born into a world that is entirely free from the threat of polio.
This article 1st appeared in the Christmas 2020 issue of Africa Magazine. You can read more about the eradication of polio in Africa on these websites: www.africakicksoutwildpolio.com; Rotary International’s website www.endpolio.org; the Global Polio Eradication Initiative www.polioeradication.org; and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance https://www.gavi.org