Polio is a dreadful disease and when it knocks, its effect is immediate and never leaves an individual. Vaccination is the only defence against the viral disease.
But despite the vaccine saving lives, a larger percentage of the population remains suspicious of it.
Kunle Adeyanju has passionately picked up the role of eradicating polio in the world.
With his foot on the pedal of his motorbike, Kunle is on a mission to take the message of polio vaccination to communities across Africa and the globe to ensure nobody misses out.
“Polio has been my personal fight. It pains to see children crawling, unable to go to school, and live a potential livelihood simply because they missed out on polio vaccine,” Kunle told The Standard during his recent visit to Kenya.
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Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that largely affects children under five years of age.
It is transmitted by person-to-person spread mainly through the faecal-oral route, and affects the nervous system causing paralysis.
In April last year, the Nigerian born made a historic ride to support Rotary International’s global effort to create awareness, and renewed commitment to work together to eradicate polio.
Kunle rode from London to Lagos in Nigeria to raise money for polio eradication. The 13,000km-journey took him through 11 countries in 41 days.
The 11 countries he traversed include Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria.
Full of zeal and energy to fight the disease, the rider began his charity ride in London, UK on April 19, 2022 and made it to Lagos on May 29, 2022.
The rider, also a Rotary member at Rotary Club of Ikoyi Metro, took up the role to become an ambassador as an immunisation advocate in honour of a childhood friend- Sanjo, who was paralysed by polio.
He vividly recalls playing football in a local playground, and on the sidelines was Sanjo who could only cheer him on, as he was wheelchair bound.
Sadly, Sanjo died of polio complications two years ago.
“Polio paralysed my friend and left him on a wheelchair. I watched him rely on crutches for mobility, as he battled the disease which also limited his potential as a child,” narrates Kunle.
“Seeing my friend suffer polio took a toll on me. There are activities he could not participate in because of polio.
His death pained me, and I vowed to do whatever I could so that no other child had to go through the same painful experience as Sanjo.”
Sanjo was not the only polio survivor. Growing up, Kunle watched dozens of children get paralysed after contracting polio.
During his ride, the London- Lagos charity rider, shared the message that immunisation saves lives, a mission that saw him raise $50,000 (Sh7.2 million), money that was channelled to global polio eradication initiative (GPEI).
Kunle is a founding partner of GPEI. GPEI has reduced polio cases by 99.9 per cent, with rotary members having contributed more than $2.6 billion (Sh375.2 billion) and countless volunteers hours to protect nearly three billion children in 122 countries from the paralysing disease.
His messaging during the ride has also reached more individuals, community leaders, states and various organisations like the World Health Organisation, and the UN who have stepped up efforts to eradicate polio.
More children across the globe have also turned out to get the vaccine, via Kunle’s mission. The ride, meant to save the lives of thousands of children, warmed Bill Gates heart, who described Kunle’s feat as ‘incredible’.
Traversing through 11 counties was however not as easy as Kunle made it look. The rider traversed complex terrain and challenging conditions that at times stretched his limits, but he was not yet done, until he arrived in Lagos.
For example, as he made way in France and Spain, he defied 1,200 kilometres of heavy downpour accompanied by storm, but the zeal of eliminating polio kept him going.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, he too came face-to-face with lions, but the struggles did not deter his mission.
“Riding in the wilderness is not easy, but it saddens more to have a child paralyse and die of polio complications…” he observes.
During the ride he taught people in markets, religious places, and schools about the importance of the vaccine.
At times, he joined PolioPlus volunteers conducting immunisations in the field and households.
PolioPlus are fundraising initiatives whereby Rotary Club members provide support to fellow members in polio affected countries for eradication activities.
Rotary advocacy efforts have played a role in decisions by governments to contribute to more than $10 billion (Sh1.4 trillion) to the effort.
Additionally, in his mission, Kunle met various health stakeholders and policymakers including representatives from the WHO, UN, Rotary Club and heads of states.
“Fighting polio is the biggest role I have developed interest in. Someday when I die, I want to be remembered as a person who mobilised a lot of children for the vaccine”.
Seeing children healthy, and living a productive life warms my heart,” says Kunle.
Even as various stakeholders woo parents into taking their children for vaccination, hesitancy is a major hitch witnessed globally. A high illiteracy level is also a contributor to vaccine hesitancy.
“Parents just don’t want their children vaccinated because of fear of the unknown, with some linking it to myths and misinformation.
Awareness is the only vehicle to vaccine acceptance,” he says.
Kunle came across the most touching encounter of polio survivors in Burkina Faso, where multitudes of people gathered for a popular annual festival in Bobo Dioulasso city.
It is at the ceremony that he saw children crawling, their knees and hands tied with slippers, as they made their way along the sandy roads in the city.
Some were being wheeled while others used crutches to the festival – polio snatched their productivity.
“It can be painful to watch a child fall, as they struggle to walk because they are paralysed - just because they missed just a drop of vaccine. It can devastate,” narrates Kunle.
“When you see such, sometimes it brings you close to tears, but is also happy that you are doing the right thing, and you still have to do more, so that we don’t have such incidences again, we can kick polio out of this world,” notes the anti-polio ambassador.
“I will not take a rest in the fight against polio, until the disease is eradicated”.