Ann Lee Hussey’s commitment to help eradicate polio around the world took shape on her first overseas trip for Rotary International in 2001, when she encountered victims of the crippling disease in Delhi, India.
“I was just amazed to see polio survivors in such quantity and number in a state you don’t see them here, crawling on the ground, dragging themselves around, bodies twisted in unimaginable contortion,” said Hussey.
The heart-wrenching experience resonated especially deeply with Hussey, a veterinary technician from South Berwick who has endured polio herself for 56 years, since she was diagnosed as a 1-year-old. Unlike her, the survivors in India lacked access to advanced medicine.
“It really struck me when I saw people walking on all fours, sandals on hands and feet. For me as a polio survivor, that’s just a loss of dignity that I don’t think humankind should allow,” she said.
Hussey embraced Rotary International’s mission of widespread inoculation to prevent transmission of the wild polio virus to people, an effort that has been credited with dramatically reducing the number of children developing the disease.
When the service club, which has chapters all over the world, committed to wiping out polio in the late 1980s, 1,000 people, mostly children, were being diagnosed each day, Hussey said. Now the number of diagnoses has now dropped to about 1,000 annually, and polio has virtually disappeared everywhere, except Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria.
Working with the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, Rotary has raised roughly $800 million. That has triggered major donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The foundation contributed a $100 million matching grant to the effort in 2007, and in 2009 it pledged another $255 million if Rotary raised $100 million. That effort is now under way.
Polio was once much more common in the United States. Hussey contracted the disease in July 1955, three months after the vaccine developed by Jonas Salk became available, though it still had not been widely distributed.
She grew up the youngest of five children in South Berwick. Her uncle also suffered from polio, overcoming his challenges to support his wife and three children.
Initially, Hussey was paralyzed from the waist down and consumed with a high fever. The paralysis abated in time, but the damage was done.
Hussey has had numerous surgeries, and while she walks well, she has lingering weakness in her right leg, and there are many shoes she cannot wear.
Surviving polio has given her a link to people she helps overseas.
In her first visit to India, Hussey went to a clinic and met a shy, 9-year-old girl, her hair pulled back into the kind of pigtails Hussey had worn as a child. She also was wearing a heavy metal brace, held in place with leather straps, just as Hussey had.
“That brought back tons of memories of what I was like when I was 9 years old,” she said. “I lost it, to say the least … I cried for her, I cried for me and all the senseless waste we get from polio.”
Hussey has been serving as the regional district governor for Rotary since last year, assisting chapters from Bethel to Newburyport, Mass. She has participated in 18 overseas relief trips with other Rotarians.
She has been to India nine times, Nigeria four times, Bangladesh, Mali, Niger and Egypt. She returned from India for five days over Thanksgiving, then left for Nigeria again.
She has helped distribute and administer oral polio vaccine, drawing a crowd whenever she does.
Her pale skin and white hair are a novelty, and it is considered prestigious for parents to have their children inoculated by a Westerner. But it is her experience with the disease — and the fact that even a privileged American can contract it — that is so enthralling.
“When she sits down with the children and shows them her deformed foot and leg and explains that she had polio, it really carries the message to the children and the parents of the need to get the vaccine,” said Dan Mooers, a South Portland attorney and former district governor for Rotary.
The involvement of the United States in armed conflict in the Muslim world has posed challenges for the group’s work, with some clerics in 2003 urging people to boycott the immunizations. The setback gave the disease a chance to spread, but religious leaders are generally now supportive.
“Ann Lee has been going into predominantly Muslim areas in Nigeria and has built up a tremendous respect … I really think the progress we’ve made in Nigeria and getting the mullahs to now endorse immunization is due in large part to her effort and the friends she has made there, he said.
One criticism leveled against the program is that other diseases also need attention, that the final stages of eradicating polio are expensive and may draw resources away from other efforts that would show more widespread results.
Mooers counters that Rotarians are supporting numerous other causes besides polio, but it is also essential for the organization’s credibility going forward that Rotary fulfill its ambitious pledge to eradicate the disease.
Hussey is already planning future trips. While friends may be headed to Florida or the Bahamas, she will be traveling to Nigeria in the fall and India at the beginning of 2012. She is considering a plan to lead a team of polio survivors.
She wants to help eliminate the disease and at the same time be supportive of the people in those countries who already have it.
“I sit on the ground with them, and take my shoes and socks off and show them what I look like now,” she said. “In a lot of ways, I’m a role model for them to not give up.”
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: