For the first time in about a decade, polio has appeared in the United States. The first case popped up on July 21, and traces of the virus have been detected in wastewater. While many Americans have received the polio vaccine, which is highly effective at preventing paralysis, those who are unvaccinated are still at risk. I spoke with Ramesh Ferris, a polio survivor, about his experience living with the virus and what he wishes people knew about it. This as-told-to essay is based on our conversation.
I contracted polio 25 years after the world already had Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine. I was living in poverty in India in 1980 in the Southern state of Tamil Nadu, and my birth mother hadn’t heard anything about the polio vaccine. At the age of six months, I contracted the virus and it paralyzed my legs for life. My birth mother gave me up to a Canadian-founded orphanage and I lived there for a year prior to being adopted by a couple in the Yukon territory, where I live now.
When I say my legs are paralyzed for life, they literally are. I walk with braces and crutches, but I have no muscle in my legs, and no ability to swing my legs or bend the knee. It was shortly after my adoption that I was able to receive corrective surgeries and rehabilitative supports that allowed me to stand up on my own two feet. I learned to walk for the first time at the age of three and a half. It’s all walking through using balance and swing and the support of the braces, steel bars, and leather straps. I always walk with two forearm crutches.
I’m categorized as a person with a permanent physical disability. I still struggle to this day because there are not a lot of places that are fully accessible for people with disabilities. Snow and ice removal policies throughout Canada don’t prioritize accessible parking. It’s hard for me to get out of my car to then access a business. If that business has steps and doesn’t have barrier-free access at the front, it’s hard to even get into buildings.
I have a positive attitude. I remain strong and focused and determined just to live my life as best I can. And as fully as I can. I’m married and I’m working in the field of social work. I’m quite happy with my life, but I guess what fuels me inside is knowing that there’s still polio survivors crawling in dirt. That horrifies me, and I do everything I can to share the message that we need to work together to end polio.
To see polio appear in the news, it’s upsetting because I’m actually living a life that I really shouldn’t be living. I shouldn’t have contracted polio. It was only because I was living in poverty in India that I contracted it. The fact is that we have the tools to finish the job and get rid of polio.
The reason we haven’t seen cases of polio in Canada is because of vaccines. I find it disheartening to know that there are people out there that just treat vaccines as a buffet and will pick and choose what they think is valid when the reality is, it’s all valid. It’s important to prevent all preventable diseases. Because if we don’t, we will see cases of polio cropping up in other countries, and it’ll spread like wildfire.
And for me, as a polio survivor, it’s heart-wrenching to know that others could experience the emotional and physical pain that I have gone through and continue to go through in my life. I don’t want anyone to have to go through that, and people should know that it’s preventable.