Polio is a dreadful disease. But bring up the subject of immunisation and Div Louw, a South African, lights with passion as he leans heavily on his chair.
But behind the relaxed and convivial façade lies a woeful tale of tears, love and pain that Louw, a retired natural scientist, has been through.
In a lengthy interview with The Standard in South Africa as the world commemorates immunisation week, Louw says he is gripped by fears that children were still getting infected and dying of polio, and other preventable illnesses, despite availability of vaccines.
Louw is mobilising polio survivors in South Africa, and the African continent in all their diversity, to put a face to the disease and to share their stories through community engagements, mass media, meetings, campaigns, development partners and government initiatives.
At a tender age of four, the natural scientist contracted spino-bulbar polio. It was in 1955.
Spino-bulbar polio destroys neurons in the brainstem, causing respiratory or cardiac failure.
The disease later denied him a chance to become a professional athlete.
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Having been paralysed at a tender age, Louw cannot clearly recall what exactly happened.
At the onset, he only remembers having shortage of breath and his mother quickly rushing to save him. He was rushed to Benoni Hospital in South Africa and put in Intensive Unit (ICU).
Furthermore, he stayed in the ICU for six weeks before being moved to an isolation ward. By then, polio patients were highly stigmatised.
The most traumatising of all the experience was having Louw speak to his parents through a sealed window.
For six months, he was in isolation. People who visited him at the hospital were also restricted.
“I do remember, I could speak to my mother and dad on telephone through a glass, and at times through the window,” narrates Louw.
“As we speak about polio, it reminds me of the situation. It is a complete emotional storm, even if I think about it... This is the second time I am speaking about my experience with polio,” he says.
At the hospital, doctors managed symptoms of the disease as there was no treatment nor cure. Vaccines were also yet to be discovered.
After being discharged, he was further placed on physiotherapy.
As a young child, he mostly hid from his peers to avoid being stigmatised, and would not fully participate in school activities like sports.
Though his situation does not dictate his future, his esteem was hit when he was declared medically unfit.
He had planned to join the military to enable him to afford a bursary for his science training. It was at 17 years.
“After being denied a chance to join the military, I realised I had to stand on my feet, to attain what I wanted to. It was, however, a painful encounter as I felt isolated,” he recalls.
He adds: “I did not get vaccinated because vaccine was not yet developed. What I would have wished for was to get a vaccine. This was a wish in a dream. I struggled, and as I grew up, I was subdued, because I wasn’t the way I was supposed to be”.
After being denied a chance at the military, he joined university in Pretoria, where he studied agricultural science.
It is at the university that he joined athlete and rugby teams.
But at around 30 years, he was diagnosed with recurring effects of polio. He had weak muscles and difficulties in movement.
Other symptoms he suffers include paralysis on the feet and upper legs, diminished and paralysis on muscles.
He has, however, continued to exercise to manage the condition.
“Polio never leaves you. Though I look normal, I breathe thorough stomach and notchest, and cannot walk so fast,” says Louw.
So what keeps him going? “I walk over my challenges. I never stop doing what I plan until it is done,” he narrates.
Polio did not kill his ambition of becoming an acclaimed sportsman.
Three years ago, he joined para-athletics team and has participated in several competitions in the continent.
He has won several medals in Egypt, Morocco and South Africa. He is further eyeing to become a global para-athlete.
He is also seeking opportunities to create awareness on polio and other childhood immunisation programmes.
He is a Rotary International Polio Plus champion, passionate and committed to ending polio.
He sensitises the community through radio, community engagements, mass media, meetings, campaigns, development partners and government initiatives.
Also he reaches out to the global community through Africa Peace hour, a Rotary International social media platform.
“I am looking forward to a day when the world shall be declared polio-free. It hurts me that once you have polio, it never leaves you.
Many people suffer from conditions which could be prevented through vaccination. We therefore need to take our children for vaccination to stop polio, measles and other diseases,” says Louw.
Fortunately, back home, Louw had a strong support system. His father bought him a bicycle to peddle.
“I grew up not knowing there was something wrong. Way back in the society those days, people did not want to accept they suffered polio. It was a silent disease, it was not talked about,” he says.
According to WHO, many people who survive polio face life-long consequences.
By mid-20th century, the poliovirus was found all over the world.
The disease killed or paralysed over half a million people every year.
With no cure, and epidemics on the rise, there was an urgent need for a vaccine.
The breakthrough in the fight against polio was in 1955, with the discovery of Inactivated Polio Vaccine.
But even with discovery of polio and other childhood vaccines, a number of African countries have reported pockets of outbreaks of diseases due to laxity in immunisation programme.
According to UNICEF, at least 25 million children missed out on childhood immunisation in Africa and across the globe due to Covid-19 pandemic.
Out of the 25 million children who missed on a single dose globally, at least 3.5 million are from Eastern and Southern Africa.
The countries which carry big burden include Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar.