Battling Polio—At Home and Abroad

Featured Article,Healthy Living
July 5, 2012

Ann Lee Hussey travels the world to eradicate polio, the disease she’s lived with since childhood.

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Jean-Marc Giboux
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Scratch Ann Lee Hussey, and you may strike iron–a core of determination. The 58-year-old native of South Berwick, Maine, has made 20 trips since 2001 to countries where the polio virus once thrived or still thrives, including nine to India, declared polio free this year. Traveling as a volunteer for Rotary International, a world-wide non-profit service organization, Hussey spends 15-hour days immunizing children in remote and dusty villages.

That would be grueling enough for most folks. But the long days don’t seem to daunt Ann, despite her own life-long struggle with the highly infectious viral disease that can attack the central nervous system and cause paralysis. While the disease has been eradicated in most countries, it still thrives in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan where, according to the World Health Organization, 1,352 new cases were reported in 2010.

Ann was diagnosed when she was just over a year old in July 1955, three months after the polio vaccine debuted. “They didn’t have enough vaccine to go around,” says Ann, now mostly retired from her job as a veterinary technician. “The fourth graders—including my sister—got them because officials figured they were the most vulnerable.”

Ann attributes her good health and near-normal walk—her right-legged limp is hardly noticeable except when she is tired—to her “very attentive” mother. “She exercised my legs every three hours round the clock to keep my muscles strong and functioning,” says Ann. “I was the youngest of five, so it’s not like she didn’t have something else to do.”

It also took eight operations over Ann’s lifetime to help normalize her gait, the first at age three, the last in July 2009. Still, Ann stuck her chin out and did whatever she could—climbing trees, dancing, driving the family farm truck from hay mound to hay mound. In grade school, she decked a girl who mimicked her walk. “That felt great,” she says. “Four years of her was enough.”

But it’s polio that she’s set out to deck for good. When she learned from her husband, a Rotary International member, that Rotary was working to eradicate polio worldwide, she signed on.  On Ann’s first trip to India in January 2001, she saw scores of polio survivors, most of them crawling. “At one rehab center, I met a little girl who had a thin right leg and a heavy metal brace just like I had as a kid. I had to walk away. I thought, ‘This shouldn’t be happening.’”

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Ann has made children like that girl her priority ever since. And if the world becomes polio free? “I would focus on rehab,” she says. “There are plenty of ways to help children.” For now, her focus is as clear as the directions she gives to her Indian guide: “I don’t want lunch. I just want to immunize.”

Get more information on Rotary’s global polio eradication effort at www.rotary.org/endpolio.

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