Ferris fights polio in Afghanistan

Ramesh Ferris' fight to eradicate polio has taken him across Canada on a hand-bike. More recently the fight took the 31-year-old to Afghanistan, one of four countries where the disease remains endemic.

Ramesh Ferris’ fight to eradicate polio has taken him across Canada on a hand-bike. More recently the fight took the 31-year-old to Afghanistan, one of four countries where the disease remains endemic.

“It was a wonderful opportunity, filled with a mix of emotion, to promote polio eradication and the importance of continuing to come together as a global community to support polio eradication initiatives in Afghanistan, providing the polio vaccination to the Afghan children,” said Ferris.

The Whitehorse native spent four days and nights in Kabul two weeks ago, conferring with government officials, doctors, medical students and even administered the oral polio vaccine to some children.

However, seeing and meeting polio victims left to crawl in the streets and beg for handouts seems to have made the largest impression on Ferris.

“I was able to meet with some polio survivors who were crawling on the ground and were begging for money, all because they didn’t have rehabilitative support,” said Ferris. “That was a very moving experience to see that first hand, how people with identified disabilities are living in the streets of Afghanistan.

“For me, when I saw that, it was motivation to keep going, to keep the drive alive to get the polio vaccine to every child in the world. To do that, and to help polio survivors get rehabilitative support.”

Ferris travelled with fellow Rotarian Dr. Gary Goforth from South Carolina, whom Ferris met at a Rotary Club conference in Naples, Florida. It was through the Rotary Club of Kabul that Ferris got to meet with the deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s National Assembly and the country’s director of preventative health.

“I heard he created a residency program in Afghanistan and goes there on an annual basis,” said Ferris. “So I broached the idea with Dr. Goforth about me going to Afghanistan and partnering together to spread the message of coming together to educate the Afghan people of the importance of continuing to support polio eradication initiatives, as well as continuing to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and arrange some meeting with some local Rotary clubs, Afghan doctors and some government officials.”

Afghanistan is one of four countries in which polio remains endemic, along with Pakistan, Nigeria and India, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. (Countries that have eradicated the indigenous wild poliovirus can still have “imported” cases, most often in west and central Africa and the Horn of Africa in the “wild poliovirus importation belt.” Just this month, an outbreak in China has been reported, purportedly imported from Pakistan.)

According to Afghan government data, 85 per cent of the population lives in areas that are polio free, but the disease continues to persist in seven districts in Kandahar, Helmand and Farah provinces, where poor hygiene is common, literacy rates are low and few understand the benefits of polio vaccinations.

If Kandahar and Helmand provinces are also synonymous with the War on Terror, not just polio, it is no coincidence, said Ferris, who could feel the vibrations from bombs exploding in the distance while in bed at night.

“The biggest struggle right now is the Taliban and the threat they put on the Afghan people in regards to threatening violence and acting out in violent ways,” said Ferris. “They have control of a lot of roadway outside of Kabul and that makes it quite challenging for volunteers and health-care professionals to go to the rural, remote villages of Afghanistan outside of Kandahar and Kabul to provide the vaccine to children as well to monitor the progress of the polio vaccine program.

“The government is making inroads with leadership and education.”

Making long-distance trips to fight polio is nothing new to the India-born Yukoner. Ferris made headlines across Canada in 2008 when he pedaled his hand bike across the country, from Victoria, BC, to Cape Spear, Newfoundland, travelling 7,110 kilometres. The Cycle to Walk campaign, as it was called, raised about $300,000 to fight polio.

He is currently a full-time student at Yukon College, working towards a bachelor of social work, and is running for student union president on October 5.

Ferris is also working to establish the Ramesh Ferris Polio Foundation, “which will create education and awareness programs,” said Ferris.

Rotary International has focused on fighting the disease for 26-years; it is the organization’s top priority. In that time Rotarians have contributed more than $1 billion and tens of thousands of volunteer hours, helping reduce 350,000 international cases in 1988 to less than 1,400 in 2010.

“It was a life-changing experience on many levels,” said Ferris of his Afghanistan trip. “When I went to Afghanistan, I went in there with a CNN lens because everything I knew about Afghanistan, that I see on the news, is highlighting the war. So I was expecting the worst.

“I came out of that journey so hopeful because I learned that the local Afghan people are doing so much hard work to live their day-to-day lives – going to the market, selling fruits and vegetables on the sides of the road.

“When I spoke to locals, through translation, they were so excited to know Westerners were taking the time to learn about the Afghan culture, that Westerners are supporting a polio-free world and providing the resources like the polio vaccine to their children.

“We have people crawling on the roads as we speak, and I will keep those images forever,” he added.

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