Ferris takes his fight against polio Down Under

Commonwealth leaders took a large step towards eradicating polio last month and Whitehorse's Ramesh Ferris was a part of that initiative.

Commonwealth leaders took a large step towards eradicating polio last month and Whitehorse’s Ramesh Ferris was a part of that initiative.

The 31-year-old polio survivor told his story in front of a crowd over 5,000 people at The End of Polio Concert in Perth, Australia, which featured musical acts such as John Legend and Calling All Cars.

“It was a great opportunity to showcase my personal experience of overcoming the disease, but also to show people what could have been prevented,” said Ferris. “I contracted polio 25 years after the world had better than a cure, it had a prevention. And we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to eradicate a second disease – smallpox being the first disease, eradicated successfully in 1979.

“So the concert was just an awesome, wonderful opportunity to bridge our generations and get people excited about a polio-free world.”

Ferris was invited to Perth to promote polio eradication by the Global Poverty Project in partnership with Rotary International, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded his trip.

At the concert, which was hosted by the Global Poverty Project, a petition circulated that would later be presented to the 53 world leaders in Perth for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in an attempt to put polio on the agenda.

It worked.

“We were able to have over 25,000 people sign this on-line petition and truly put polio eradication in the spotlight,” said Ferris. “It was put on the CHOGM agenda and ended up being one of the major funding announcements out of the entire conference.”

Indeed. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who placed polio eradication on the agenda, pledged $54 million (US) to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, UK Prime Minister David Cameron $65 million, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan $30 million, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani $17 million, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper $15 million.

Joining the press conference by video link, philanthropist Bill Gates announced an additional $40 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation to date has invested $1 billion in the fight to end the disease.)

Ferris had the chance to show his gratitude while meeting with the five heads of state.

“I was able to thank them for their support in a polio-free world, committing the funds that we need to ensure the success and continuation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative,” said Ferris. “I was able to share with them that their comments are putting the spotlight back on polio and taking a disease that is perceived as a disease of the past and making it a disease of the present. Ten million children don’t needlessly have to be paralyzed over the next 40 years, as the World Health Organization predicts.

“It is my hope that other leaders around the world will see the commitment … and will want to get on board.”

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a World Health Organization project, dates back to 1988, and, with Rotary International, has delivered the vaccine to two billion children and raised over $1 billion.

In 1988 an estimated 400,000 of new cases occurred each year over 125 countries. Since then numbers have dropped dramatically to under 1,300 in four countries

– Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, the last three of which are Commonwealth nations.

“India is making history as we speak,” said Ferris. “There hasn’t been a new case of polio in that country since January 13 of this year. So if India can go one year without a new case of polio, they will then come off the endemic country list, which has never happened in the history of India.

“It’s a testament to how close we are to a polio-free world.”

Making long-distance trips to fight polio is nothing new to the Yukoner. Ferris made headlines across Canada in 2008 when he rode 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.

In September Ferris traveled to Afghanistan, where he spent four days and nights in Kabul, conferring with government officials, doctors, medical students and even administered the oral polio vaccine to some children.

As with his trip to his native India in 2002, where he witnessed the deplorable situation polio victims faced, Ferris was moved by meeting polio survivors living in squalor in the streets in Kabul.

“My journey is truly at its beginning and I will continue on to raise awareness for polio eradication and helping polio survivors get the rehabilitation supports so they are not doomed to dirt and dragging themselves through the streets,” said Ferris. “I think everyone in this world should have access to the type of care that I received so they don’t have to be crawling in dirt. I think that’s a basic human right.”

Contact Tom Patrick at tomp@yukon-news.com