Real Voices interview: Ann Lee Hussey
Meet Ann, a volunteer with Rotary International working on polio immunisation campaigns
What do you do?
I work with Rotary International to lead teams of volunteers working on the polio immunisation campaigns in countries across Africa and Asia. I’ve been doing this since 2001, and have participated in 25 trips.
What is polio?
It’s a virus that is spread through oral–faecal contact and so occurs in areas where there is poor sanitation. The poliovirus enters through the mouth, replicates in the digestive tract and is egested in the faeces, which means the virus spreads easily among unprotected children. The poliovirus enters the nervous system and attacks the nerves along the spine. The most common effect is crippling of the legs, although the virus may affect the spine or upper limbs. Over 50 per cent of patients will have issues later on in life, called post-polio syndrome.
Have you yourself had polio?
I contracted polio in 1955, in one of the last large epidemics on the east coast of the USA. I was 17 months old so I don’t remember the actual experience. But I do remember that I had multiple surgeries, starting when I was three years old. Both of my legs have been affected. I still can’t wear high heels or normal ladies’ shoes as a rule.
What kind of vaccine do you use?
We’ve been using an oral vaccine for many years – for several reasons. First, because it’s less expensive.
Second, because it can be easily administered by someone other than a registered nurse or healthcare worker.
Most importantly, after the vaccine has been ingested, some of it is passed through the faeces and spreads to unvaccinated children, offering active immunity to those we have missed. We vaccinate children up to five years old. But if there’s an outbreak in a country that was previously polio-free, we sometimes extend into young adults.
Do people know what polio is?
There are polio survivors around, so people do see those that have been disabled. But they’re not seeing polio as something as rampant as they used to, which means it can be hard to make people understand the importance of immunisation.
What other challenges are there?
Conflict is our biggest problem. Whenever there’s a breakout of conflict or war, like in Syria, then it is harder to reach those children. We have all the tools in place, we know how to do it, but if we don’t have access, then it’s really hard.
Where is polio a major problem?
The three countries that are now endemic [have polio widespread in the population] are Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.