SOUTH BERWICK – To many Americans, the battle against polio was won long ago. For Ann Lee Hussey, the fight continues.
Hussey travels the world and returns with photos of children left paralyzed by the virus, their limbs weak and twisted, and polio survivors who pull themselves by their hands through dirty streets. Children continue to die of the disease, which has been eradicated from all but three countries, she said.
“People are blind (to the effects) because they’re not old enough to remember how it was,” Hussey said.
Hussey’s passion for eradicating polio is deeply personal. She grew up in South Berwick and, when she was 17 months old, contracted the contagious disease.
For the past 13 years, the 59-year-old veterinary technician from South Berwick has been traveling with Rotary International to some of the poorest parts of the world to administer polio vaccines and help alleviate the suffering of polio survivors.
She has administered the oral vaccines to thousands of children, helped purchase wheelchairs and open a school, and shared her own story as a polio survivor, all in a quest to eradicate the disease.
Last week, she was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change. She was one of 12 Rotary International members recognized for their extraordinary service to the community.
“We need people like Ann Lee to remind us polio is a problem of the here and now,” said Martha Helman, a Rotary district governor from Boothbay Harbor who nominated Hussey for the Champion of Change honor. “Her single-minded focus on polio eradication is inspiring.”
Polio cases have declined rapidly since Rotary International launched the PolioPlus health initiative in 1985. There were 120 polio-endemic countries in 1988, but only three today — Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
In 2012, there were 223 new cases of polio worldwide. There have been 16 so far this year, compared with 40 during the same time period last year.
In the past five years, Hussey has gone on 25 National Immunization Day trips to some of the poorest parts of the world to administer polio vaccines. She has vaccinated children in Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Niger, Nigeria, Egypt and India.
She has spoken to hundreds of Rotary clubs, to schools and polio survivor groups, and at peace conferences in Kenya, Norway and New Zealand. She once spent a week in Hong Kong speaking to people about polio eradication.
Hussey said her biggest success is in bringing awareness to post-polio syndrome and the need to provide support to polio survivors. She is quick to point out she could not do the work without Rotary and its international network of members.
“Rotary is a very inspiring organization because it allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things,” she said.
Hussey contracted the contagious disease in July 1955, just three months after the vaccine developed by Jonas Salk became available but before it was widely distributed.
Hussey was initially paralyzed from the waist down. She has had numerous surgeries, and still has lingering weakness in one leg. While Hussey walks with a lift in her shoe, it doesn’t slow her down, according to the people who travel with her.
“For a woman who has some mobility issues, she works twice as hard and goes three times as far as everybody else,” Helman said.
David Reid, a Rotary member from North Hampton, N.H., went on a trip to Nigeria with Hussey in 2010. There, he saw not only the extreme poverty of a developing Third World country, but was also impressed by Hussey’s tireless leadership as Rotary members teamed up with health officials to administer vaccines.
“She’s just living her life trying to make a difference,” he said. “It brings a smile to my face to see she is able to do that.”
After meeting a young polio survivor in Nigeria who was unable to go to school because it was several miles away, Hussey lobbied the state government to build a school in the village. It took several years and multiple visits before a two-room school was finally built to serve the village.
It’s named the Ann Lee Nomadic School.
The villagers gave Hussey a turkey to thank her.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve been given a turkey as a thank you gift,” she said. “It was the best turkey I ever ate.”
Hussey keeps a photo in her laptop of herself holding the turkey, alongside hundreds of photos of the children and families she has met.
“The biggest thing on the faces of the children is hope. All they hope for is a better day,” she said. “We offer hope. I sure try to do my part.”
Helman, the Rotary district governor, is sure Hussey will be a “little piece of history” when the world is finally free of polio.
“When polio is eradicated, it will be because an awful lot of people put an awful lot of work into it,” she said. “There will be a real solid piece of her in that win.”
For more information about polio eradication efforts, go to endpolionow.org.
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: