Polio's Retreat

Months of physical therapy have allowed Samir to keep active with his siblings. He loves to play outside, and his favorite game is chase. Since 1995, when India held its first national polio immunization campaign, 2.3 million vaccinators have visited 209 million households to immunize 170 million children every year. Their efforts will help provide a polio-free future for generations to come throughout Southeast Asia.
Allison Kwesell
Samir was two years old when Allison Kwesell first photographed him. He contracted polio when he was a year old.
Allison Kwesell
Kwesell began documenting the PolioPlus campaign four years ago. Her sponsor club, the Rotary Club of Chattanooga Breakfast, Tennessee, flew her to India, where she met Monis. His case was the last one reported in Moradabad.
Allison Kwesell
At age six, Monis's walking has improved with the help of physical therapy, which Rotarians are funding.
Allison Kwesell

As photojournalist Allison Kwesell walks through the narrow streets of an Indian village, familiarity sets in. She visited here four years ago, when she first met Samir and his family. He was two years old then and had recently contracted polio.

Kwesell approaches the front porch of a home when she hears an older woman yelling “Samir! Samir!” She runs toward the voice, wondering if she’ll recognize the boy. She sees six children playing chase on the dry earth, the dirt forming clouds around their feet. From afar she notices a young boy, not unlike the other barefoot children in the backyard overlooking patches of farmland, except for his slight limp. She moves closer and the children pause, half encircled around the boy. Kwesell recognizes him by his eyes. Samir is six now, and with the help of physical therapy, he can run and play with the rest of the children in his village on the outskirts of Moradabad.

Samir is one of the last children in India to contract polio. In March 2014, the World Health Organization announced that its Southeast Asia region is officially polio-free. The certification came on the heels of India’s successful fight against the disease: It celebrated three years without polio in January.  

The nation’s achievement is the result of a grueling 36-year battle that sent millions of health workers down alleys, up mountains, and across deserts to reach every child in this sprawling country. Not long ago, India had more cases of polio than any other nation in the world. This milestone means that 80 percent of the population worldwide lives without fear of the paralyzing disease.

Samir’s mother, Fahmida, has seven children now. She worries about Samir, who will have to cross a busy road on his way to school when he starts later this year. He sometimes falls down when running too fast, but he always gets right back up. Samir’s doctor believes that his case was less severe than it could have been because earlier vaccinations against polio helped him build partial immunity. Fahmida is hopeful for his future; Samir wants to be a doctor when he grows up.

“For mothers, all of this hard work will mean fewer worries about this crippling disease,” says Kwesell, a former Rotary Peace Fellow. 

Adapted from a story in the August 2014 issue of The Rotarian