Eradicating Polio Is Possible: Stories of Resilience and Hope

From different corners of the world, two polio survivors and a frontline worker share how polio has impacted their lives and communities. Their stories spark resilience and hope in a world agonizingly close to ending polio.

The world is so close to ending polio. But as long as the virus exists in just one corner of the globe, it can spread, unraveling decades of hard-won progress. Two polio survivors and a UNICEF officer on the frontlines of vaccination efforts share their stories. While their experiences vary, their message is the same: Everyone, everywhere should be vaccinated against this preventable disease.

Wasif Mahmood, a communications officer with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Pakistan, understands the dire impact of polio all too well. He often goes to hard-to-reach villages to persuade parents to get their young children vaccinated before it’s too late.

Although he has made countless visits in his more than 10 years with UNICEF, one encounter has stayed with him: He knocked on a door to ask if any children were living in the home. Even though Wasif saw children playing around the home, the man who opened the door refused to speak with him.

“It’s not just going there and just vaccinating the child whenever there is a campaign,” Wasif says. “The approach is, basically, to go there before the [vaccination] campaign and make friends.”

But with mistrust around vaccines rampant, it’s not easy, he notes.

So Wasif works with respected elders and other influential community members to build support. In this instance, he connected with an imam who was holding a meeting at a mosque to discuss the upcoming polio vaccination campaign. After joining the meeting, Wasif earned the community’s trust. The father who had refused to speak with him agreed to vaccinate his children, and other parents said they would have their children vaccinated as well.

“We should work with the communities strongly and involve them in this whole effort,” Wasif says. “Because it’s not about us, it’s about them.”

Thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of those on the frontlines of vaccination like Wasif, wild polio cases are down 99.9% since 1988. Vaccines are one of the greatest public health innovations of the 20th century, responsible for eradicating smallpox and other once-deadly diseases and protecting an estimated 3 billion children against polio so far.

We have the tools to end polio once and for all. But there has been a dramatic decline in vaccination rates in recent years, largely due to pandemic disruptions that have put tens of millions of children worldwide at risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases like polio.

While the wild polio virus has been eradicated in most countries, it remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan and cases occasionally crop up in other countries. At the same time, outbreaks of another form of the disease, known as variant poliovirus, pose a serious and growing threat in places with underimmunized populations, particularly in remotes areas across Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of Asia. In 2023 alone, variant poliovirus was responsible for paralyzing over 500 children across 23 countries.

Polio anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Until the virus is eradicated worldwide, every country remains at risk of seeing polio resurface. As polio survivors, Safia Ibrahim and Julius Ntobuah can’t stress the importance of polio vaccinations enough. After overcoming several obstacles to learn how to live with the lifelong effects of polio, their greatest wish is to see every child protected from the virus, a dream frontline worker Wasif is determined to realize.

Safia, born in Somalia and now living in Canada, works to protect children not only from what she experienced as a child, but also from the everyday challenges she faces as a polio survivor. Photo: Safia Ibrahim

Safia’s Story: Education Is Freedom

Safia Ibrahim contracted polio around the age of 1. The virus took her ability to walk. And in Somalia, where she grew up, that also meant it took away her opportunity to attend school. Every day she wondered what it would be like to go with the other kids to school, which was just two minutes from her home.

“Until the age of 6, I was crawling. I couldn’t really, like, stand and leave or move far away from my home,” Safia says. “So, I would just sit outside and watch all the children do all of that. I was very disheartened by it.”

One day, after Safia got into a fight with two girls who refused to play hopscotch with her, her grandmother said: “You wanna play? You wanna join the others? You’re gonna have to stand up and walk. So today, you will have to start walking.”

From then on, she wouldn’t let Safia sit, telling her instead to hold onto the walls and furniture. With persistence and encouragement from her grandmother, the strong woman who raised her, Safia gained more strength and confidence.

But the one thing she wanted above all was to go to school. “I didn’t really get that chance until I came to Canada,” she says. Safia and her family left Somalia when civil war erupted. Once they settled in Canada in 1990, an orthopedic surgeon provided crutches and a brace and medically cleared Safia to attend school. She was 8 years old.

The day before classes, “I got all my pencils and crayons out and I had my book and my thermos, and everything all packed up,” she recalls. “I woke up, got dressed, you know, did everything that I could to prepare myself for school.”

When Safia’s education specialist showed her where to sit, it was the first time she saw her name in writing. “It just felt so empowering to finally be getting a seat at the table,” she says. “I still get goosebumps just having that memory.”

As she started to walk better, went to school, and learned English, Safia realized that “education is the key — honestly, to life.” For her, “It’s the key to being independent and providing for yourself and for your family.”

Safia now has a family of her own, and constantly emphasizes the importance of education — and vaccines — to her three children.

Safia is on a mission to educate the world about polio. She works as a vaccine advocate and a public engagement manager at Results Canada in Ottawa. Photo: Safia Ibrahim

“I don’t want to sound redundant, but they do save lives. We don’t have smallpox anymore,” she explains. “My life could have been better if I was vaccinated, right? I would have been able to go to the amusement park and walk all day and ride every single ride that my son loves … instead of just watching.”

Today, her children are vaccinated against all diseases that are preventable by vaccines. “Vaccines provide freedom and opportunity we could never imagine,” she says. “Only people with vaccine preventable illnesses [can] actually say that.”

When asked what she wants the world to know about polio survivors, Safia is clear: “We exist. And the polio virus still exists, even though you might not know someone personally who has contracted polio or is living with polio right now,” she continues, “and anytime that a child contracts polio, it’s a huge risk to every child in the whole wide world.”

Today, Safia uses her voice as a vaccine advocate to educate the public about vaccine-preventable illnesses. She also works as a public engagement manager at Results Canada in Ottawa, advancing solutions to end extreme poverty through advocacy.

Drawing from his personal experiences as a polio survivor and migrant, Julius advocates for the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers with disabilities. Photo: Julius Ntobuah

Julius’ Story: Reclaiming His Future

“I was the first polio-disabled child to go to school in my village at that time, and even the teachers didn’t want to accept me at the beginning,” Julius Ntobuah says. “It was this sudden coming out, looking at you as an alien, as if we don’t belong.”

For the first three months, Julius sat alone in class in his hometown in Cameroon. The environment was rife with stigma and isolation, and making friends was nearly impossible.

One day, a British Catholic missionary, the Rev. Sister Julie, spotted Julius in the schoolyard by himself. She soon talked to his parents about a rehabilitation center she thought could help.

“I was just happy she happened to be passing by. And I was surprised because she’s the only person who ever stopped to care how I’m doing,” Julius says. “She played a key role in guiding my parents to finding a solution to my post-polio rehabilitation. She’s a hero in my life.”

Fast forward six months at the center: 6-year-old Julius still could not walk. “If we don’t do anything, we’re going to be here the rest of our lives — and this is not our home,” his mother told him. “You gotta do something or I will leave you here and go home.”

She then went to the store, leaving Julius to ruminate. Terrified of being abandoned, he practiced how to walk on crutches without fear of falling. He was determined to learn before his mom returned.

“It was like I was flying,” he says of his first steps after contracting polio at the age of 3. “It was like a feeling of liberation.”

When his mom saw him walking for the first time, she dropped what she had bought at the store in disbelief and agreed to stay.

Julius is chairman for the nonprofit Newcomers with Disabilities in Sweden, and a member of the UNHCR Advisory Board, which acts as a representative body for organizations led by displaced and stateless people. Photo: Julius Ntobuah

After Julius completed primary school, Sister Julie was so proud of him. She encouraged him and his family to create a public service announcement to encourage other parents to send their children with disabilities to school. It was distributed across local radio stations, in community meetings, and at masses. Julius became a champion student for his community.

“If I allow another generation to pass through the same thing I have, then it’s like my time on this Earth, in existence, has no meaning,” says Julius. “I have to protect every child. Every child has the right to enjoy playing with the others.”

To do that, he says: “Every child should get the measles vaccine, the polio vaccine. … Full stop, no question.” A world free of polio to him is one “where children will fulfill their dreams without any hindrance. Children would work without limitation. It would be a world where people pursue their dreams.”

While Julius is grateful to work in Sweden with the nonprofit Newcomers with Disabilities, he says he’s reduced to working solely with his brain and hands. He can’t play football, which was one of his childhood dreams.

Today, Julius advocates to improve workplace integration of polio survivors and other newcomers with disabilities in the Swedish workforce via information technology (IT) training.

With his career at UNICEF spanning over a decade, Wasif has worked on partnerships, advocacy, strategic and crisis communications, with a focus on advancing children’s rights. Photo: Wasif Mahmood

Wasif’s Story: The Vaccine Pitch

Before going door to door in Pakistani communities, Wasif Mahmood, a UNICEF communications officer, combs through contact lists and new polio data to understand the latest trends. He often creates focus groups with doctors and parents, especially those who are hesitant, to address their concerns about the frequency of polio immunization campaigns. This in-depth analysis allows him to meet parents where they are.

“I just tell them they need to think about this and that they need to know that all the initiatives, all these efforts, have brought polio cases down … in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Wasif says when delivering his pitch. “We are the only ones who have suffered for a long time.”

Vaccination teams face many obstacles. Part of the challenge is vaccine misinformation. Safia and Julius can attest to this: Mistrust in the power of the polio vaccine to protect and save lives left them and their families susceptible to this preventable disease. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, insecurity due to conflict is a significant challenge. So, too, is inconsistent access to populations on the move as well as community boycotts of vaccination activities, during which families refuse to vaccinate their children until local authorities provide other essential services, such as water, food, or roads.

Wasif works with respected elders and other influential community members to build support for vaccination campaigns. Photo: Wasif Mahmood

“The biggest challenge that we are facing in Pakistan right now is the boycotts,” adds Wasif. “Then there’s negative beliefs and weak systems and structures that we have here. But we are this close. We are really close to eradication.”

A lot of credit goes to the health care workers in immunization campaigns, Wasif notes. Regardless of severe weather or difficult terrain — whether in snow-covered mountains or in remote areas with limited security — health care workers are there. Often, they don’t have the proper attire to stay warm. Insecurity, conflict, and unstable political dynamics pose especially serious risks to the safety of health workers; many have even died in the pursuit of a polio-free world.

“These polio workers are frontline soldiers,” Wasif says. “They are the key to success. I would like to work closely with them to listen to their queries and to listen to their problems and solve them.”

Without a doubt, investments in vaccination and the health care workforce are necessary for polio eradication everywhere.

Polio “can affect a child anywhere on the globe, so as long as it is out there, it can stage a comeback. It can come back and haunt you,” warns Wasif. “So always vaccinate yourself. Keep your child vaccinated and when there is a polio campaign, keep your child vaccinated on time for [all] routine immunizations as well.”

A Polio-Free World

When asked to envision a world without polio, Safia, Julius, and Wasif agreed that it’s one without suffering. It “would be an equal opportunity and equitable world” for all, Safia says. “Like for me, it would mean that every child would reach their full potential … without polio hindering their growth.”

So that means “access to all the basic health facilities, especially [for] children,” adds Wasif. “They’re all healthy and going to school … without any discrimination there. They have access to this [vaccine] and children and their parents are accepting it and they are enjoying it. They’ll demand it.”

The impact of polio is real and devastating. But it doesn’t have to be. “Polio is a preventable disease,” emphasizes Julius. “I would like the world to join the polio campaign and make sure every child at every corner of the world is vaccinated against polio.”

Show Solidarity

This World Immunization Week, join the global call for governments to prioritize vaccine funding. Ensuring every child is protected against life-threatening diseases like polio — no matter where they live — is possible. Stand with survivors like Safia, Julius, and others for a world free of vaccine-preventable diseases.