Polio survivor hand cycles to “Eradicate, educate, rehabilitate”

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Photo: courtesy of www.cycletowalk.com

Ramesh Ferris is hand cycling across Canada to raise awareness and funds to eradicate polio. His Cycle to Walk campaign hopes to raise $ 1 million toward this effort.

Ramesh Ferris stands on the doorstep of history, wearing leg braces and with the aid of crutches. In the wake of Canadian legends like Terry Fox and Rick Hansen, the 28-year-old polio survivor is hand cycling across the country to raise awareness and funds to eradicate polio from the face of the earth.

“We are 99 per cent there. We need to give polio one final push. Inaction means losing an investment of $4 billion or the paralysis of 10 million children over the next forty years,” Ferris said in a telephone interview from Lachute, Quebec.

The investments Ferris is referring to are efforts made by Rotary International’s PolioPlus and the World Health Organization’s global health initiative to eradicate the disease. Polio stands to be the second disease eradicated in history, following the eradication of smallpox in 1979.

The Whitehorse native set out on April 12 – the anniversary of the discovery of the Salk vaccination against polio – from Victoria, British Columbia, to complete the 7,200-kilometre journey. Ferris is expected to arrive in Cape Spear, Newfoundland, in October.

“When I started, I hadn’t hand-cycled for a kilometre,” Ferris admitted. Ferris trained for two years, hand cycling during the long daylight hours in the summer and swimming laps during the sunless winters in the Yukon. He will reach kilometre 5,200 when he arrives in Quebec City on August 22.

Polio, short for poliomyelitis or poliovirus, is a debilitating disease that can cause paralysis only hours after contraction. The disease is contracted through the mouth, usually through water contaminated with fecal matter, and multiplies in the intestines. Polio attacks motor neurons in the brain stem, affecting motor skills and breathing.

While the disease is relatively unknown in the Western hemisphere today due to public health administered vaccinations, polio reached crisis proportions in the early 1950s, including hundreds of cases in Canada. Schoolyards, churches, swimming pools, and theatres were all but abandoned out of fear of contracting the disease.

The epidemic was controlled in 1955 with the discovery of the polio vaccine by American scientist Dr. Jonas Salk along with the distribution of the vaccine by Connaught Laboratories in Toronto.

Despite the discovery of the vaccine over 50 years ago, hundreds of new cases plague children in developing countries every year, notably Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Ferris’ resolve to fight the disease came after a return visit to the town of his birth in Coimbatore, India, where he met his biological mother for the first time. Unable to provide Ramesh with the health care he needed to fight the disease, his mother gave him up for adoption. He was adopted into the home of Ron Ferris, the Anglican Archbishop of the Yukon, and Jan, his wife.

“I realized how fortunate I was to see I could do what I do. We can shed ignorance on the issue. There are people [polio survivors] who have to drag themselves in the dirt.” Ferris explained that since the polio survivors in India did not have access to any rehabilitative care, or even crutches, those affected tied pieces of tire to their knees and dragged themselves on the ground using their hands. Twenty per cent of the funds raised will go to rehabilitating polio survivors in less fortunate countries.

Ferris will enter Quebec City on August 22 and will be led by police escort through the city on August 23 to the ferry to Lévis. Those wishing to cheer him on can check his exact route on the “events” section of the campaign’s website:

www.cycletowalk.com. Those hoping to make a donation should do the same. Additionally, Ferris will be speaking at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on August 23 at 11 a.m. A coffee and tea fundraiser will follow at noon.