On a mission to repair lives

In the operating room, Past RI President Rajendra K. Saboo comforts three-year-old Ibrahim Hafso as she goes into surgery.
Photo Credit: Charanjit Singh
A young patient waits for surgery.
Photo Credit: Charanjit Singh
Children and their parents patiently wait to see the doctors.
Photo Credit: Charanjit Singh
Three past RI presidents joined the effort: Rajendra K. Saboo (front left), Jonathan B. Majiyagbe of Nigeria (front right), and Kalyan Banerjee (not pictured).
Photo Credit: Charanjit Singh
C.O. Onyebuchi Chukwu, the Nigerian minister of health and a trained orthopedic surgeon, helps out in the operating room.
Photo Credit: Charanjit Singh
A child rests in the recovery room.
Photo Credit: Charanjit Singh

Ask most 14-year-old boys about their favorite sports, and they’ll be quick to name a particular team or player, recall a memorable game, or describe the position they’d like to play when they grow up.

Samalla Halidu, a young polio survivor, had a different response for Past RI President Rajendra K. Saboo when the two met at a hospital outside Abuja, Nigeria: “Will I be able to stand?”

In December, Saboo led a 10-day medical mission from India to Nigeria to help hundreds of children like Samalla. Funded partly by a $50,000 Rotary Foundation grant, the team of 19 doctors and six nonmedical volunteers performed almost 800 surgeries to correct muscle and bone deformities caused by poliovirus infection. After Halidu recovers from procedures on both legs, he will be able to walk with caliper splints, and perhaps even kick a soccer ball.

Nigeria, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of three remaining polio-endemic countries. Immunization rates have slowed in the West African nation, stemming in part from community resistance. Misinformation and rumors of conspiracy can swirl around northern Nigeria like the harmattan off the Sahara, causing parents to fear the drops of vaccine that could save their children’s lives. In 2012 Nigeria recorded 121 cases of polio, more than twice as many as Pakistan and three times as many as Afghanistan.

Saboo encountered similar resistance among minority communities in India, which marked its second polio-free year in January. But where others saw a challenge, he saw an opportunity. “If India can do it, so can Nigeria,” he says. “We have similar problems, similar conditions. We are afflicted by poverty and illiteracy.” Those commonalities helped the Indian team relate to the Nigerians and work with them to overcome obstacles, he says.

Walking through the hospital waiting rooms, Saboo spoke with the patients’ parents. “We asked them how they will take care of their other children. We told them, ‘A few drops of vaccine will prevent this disease.’ They were touched, and reassured us that they would go back to their communities with the message that this will not happen to other children.” 

This story originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of The Rotarian