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Milestone moment in polio fight

Ramesh Ferris: 33 years; lives in Ontario, Canada; Facebook page shows photographs with who’s who, including Queen Elizabeth and Bill Gates.

Rukhsar Khatoon: Three-and-a-half years; lives in a one-room shanty at Shahpara village in Howrah’s Panchla that has no proper latrine.

Ramesh and Rukhsar are poles apart in every aspect of their lives except one — both are victims of polio that has left their legs partially paralysed.

Ramesh was afflicted with the dreaded virus 32 years ago in Coimbatore and Rukhsar (till now the country’s last polio victim) in January 2011. India will be declared polio-free if it can pull through another year without any new case.

On Thursday afternoon, Ramesh, a global face of Rotary’s international campaign on polio since 2008, came all the way from Canada to meet Rukhsar on the occasion of the completion of two polio-free years in India, a first for the country.

“I was affected with polio in 1980 and my single mother quickly understood that she did not have the means to treat me and handed me to an orphanage. A Canadian couple took me from there and I learnt to fight and win over polio. And here I am, with hopefully the last polio case in the country,” Ramesh told Metro sitting on a plastic chair at the doorstep of Rukhsar’s house.

Ramesh made it his mission to fight the disease after he came back to India in 2002 to meet his mother and came across several polio survivors. “In 2008, I had hand-cycled 7,140km across Canada to raise polio awareness,” said Ramesh.

The awareness Ramesh has been toiling to spread dawned on Rukhsar’s parents and their neighbourhood once the girl contracted the virus. “Earlier, there was a lot of resistance to polio vaccine. But now, seeing Rukhsar’s fate, almost all families in the area get their children vaccinated against polio,” said a resident.

Rukhsar’s parents, too, did not repeat the mistake and got all three of her younger siblings vaccinated. The polio vaccine can be administered to children up to five years of age.

The spread of awareness at the grassroots, however, will come to nought in the absence of concerted government action to ensure hygiene in slums and remote villages. In Bengal, the Panchla area bore the brunt of apathy, witnessing a polio case in 2008 and another (Rukhsar) in 2011.

Panchla is officially a “nirmal gram” (meaning 100 per cent sanitation) but Metro found open defecation rampant there, especially among children. “Nothing has changed here. The houses still do not have proper latrines,” said Moidul Shah, a villager.