Tread lightly: Africa may be declared free of polio by 2017, but life remains a struggle for those it has already scarred.(Photo: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters)

'We testify to spare them our pain'

Sarah Hughes, Phil Moore
Adults scarred by polio are fighting stigma and shame to persuade parents in the DRC to vaccinate their children.

The worst moment in Marie Biyela-Manungu's life came when she was waiting for a bus in Kinshasa and they refused to let her get on because she was crippled by polio.

Biyela-Manungu, now 54, contracted polio at the age of four. Overnight her life fell apart. "Before I had been able to walk but then when I caught the disease I went back to crawling. It was so difficult for me," she says.

"My mother also suffered a lot. Before, we were doing really well but when I caught the disease it became really difficult for my family – they had to carry me to the toilet and many other little things that made everyday life hard.

"My little brother had to accompany me to school. It wasn't easy for him to support his big sister who had this disease, every day going to school and back with the pace I had, it was so difficult for him."

Nor did it get any easier as she grew older. "To have a child with this disease in a place like Kinshasa, there are all these things people will say," she explains. "Strangers would mock me and insult me. They'd say it was sorcery. I found it really hard."

Biyela-Manungu's story highlights the devastation polio wreaked on a generation.

Eradicating polio
The Democratic Republic of Congo, once one of the most polio-ridden countries in the world, has been free of it since 2011 and, if no new cases of polio are found in Somalia and Nigeria, then by 2017 Africa will be named polio-free. For the Gavi Alliance, which works to combat the disease and raise awareness of vaccinations, this will be a considerable triumph.

Yet even as a new generation of children are growing up away from polio's shadow, life remains a struggle for those living with the disease.

Polio destroyed the family of Marie-Josée Watusolele (52).

"I was eight years old when I got the disease. My mother and father separated because of it. People said my uncle had cast a spell. They said it was witchcraft.

"They said he'd done it so I wouldn't marry. It was a terrible time. When I was older girls would say 'it's all over for you, no one can do anything for you because of this illness'. I was really unhappy."

She learnt to walk with the help of crutches and managed to attend school. She learnt to sew and to earn a living making and selling dolls. She also met a fellow polio survivor and married him.

Love and pain
"God gave me love and a husband and three beautiful children – three sons," she says. "The illness was terrible and the braces I wear still really hurt. Each day they hurt so much I have to take them off to feel okay, but as God is good he picked me up and that's why I'm a lady of worth."

Her husband Evariste Mputu is 62. He contracted polio when he was three. "They tried to heal me; we went to the hospital in Bas-Congo [back then it was Central Congo] but they couldn't do anything," he says.

"They tried operations but it didn't last. Then they gave me some leg braces to move around in. Little by little I got older, and I stayed as I was. I stayed like this."

When Evariste was seven, his father gave him a tricycle to help him get around. "It helped but now it's very old and no longer in working order so even visiting my family becomes difficult," he admits.

Despite the pain, Mputu spends much time working with a support group to raise awareness of the disease that changed his life. "We try to explain the importance of vaccination and the problems polio can cause," he says. "And we are pretty much living witnesses. We testify to raise the awareness of the masses."

Biyela-Manungu agrees.

"We take our time to persuade people about the importance of vaccination," she says. "The situation here has improved so much but with everything I've lived through, everything I've put up with since childhood, I don't want to see that happen to another child.

"That's why I go to the houses of families that refuse the vaccination. I tell them 'if you refuse to vaccinate your child then they are going to end up like me'. In the end the parents are willing to vaccinate," she smiles.

Sarah Hughes and Phil Moore are writers for Arete Stories – an organisation helping to tell stories about development issues


Just a drop: SA was free of the disease in 2006, 10 years after the Kick Polio Out campaign was launched. 

Vaccinations and vigilance are keeping SA free of polio

Nelson Mandela launched the Kick Polio Out of South Africa campaign in 1996 as a detailed response to the World Health Assembly’s 1988 global polio eradication initiative, which targeted the fact that the disease was endemic in 125 countries worldwide.

"Our aim is not merely to reduce the numbers afflicted – it is to eliminate the disease completely," Mandela said in a speech at the 1996 launch, which was subsequently reported by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

"No country can be safe from this disease until the whole world is rid of it. For it can cross borders with ease."

A decade later, in 2006, South Africa was awarded polio-free status by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In 2007, South Africa even began donating to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private global health partnership, with the aim of supporting vaccination programmes in the poorest countries of the world.

By 2009, the country was spending more than R100-million on its national immunisation programme every three years, with assistance from the WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund and Rotary International.

That same year, the WHO praised South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland for maintaining their polio-free status.

In a press release issued by the department of health on July 27 2009, Molefi Sefularo, then deputy health minister, praised the work of health workers at all levels, saying: "Today, we can be collectively proud of the remarkable achievements of our three countries".

But he cautioned that "the polio eradication process has yet to be concluded at a global level" and stressed that "no child should be denied his or her right to be immunised and protected against vaccine preventable diseases".

"We would like to congratulate South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho for working tirelessly towards achieving polio-free status," said Nicholas Eseko, the WHO representative in the same statement. "We urge you to work just as hard towards maintaining this status and keeping high alert with good surveillance to keep polio out of our region."

South Africa remains polio-free. – Kate Holt

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