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Meet One of the Last Polio Survivors Who Uses an Iron Lung

Paul Alexander is a 71-year-old Texas lawyer. He went to law school as you might expect of any lawyer, and he’s travelled the world — but he’s done it all from within an iron lung.

An iron lung is a respirator — created in 1929 by Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw — to provide breathing support for people with paralysis of the respiratory muscles.

And, for the last 65 years, it has helped keep Alexander alive, after he was diagnosed with polio as a child.

Take Action: Thank the Government of Canada for Their $100-Million Pledge Towards Polio Eradication

There are only a small number of polio survivors left that still use this kind of machine to help them breathe, according to a recent investigation by Gizmodo.

Because of this, it has been hard, at times, for Alexander to keep the iron lung going.

"A lot of people who had polio and they're dead. What did they do with the iron lung? I've found them in barns. I found them in garages. I've found them in junk shops. Not much, but enough to scrounge [for] parts," Alexander told As It Happens.

Read More: It’s Official: The G7 Just Promised to Maintain Its Commitment to Eradicating Polio

Alexander posted a video on YouTube in 2015 looking for help with fixing his machine. Brady Richards, who tests equipment in an environmental standards lab, happened to watch the video and to also have an iron lung in his garage. Luckily, he was able to help refurbish Alexander’s machine.

"It's a rather simple machine," Alexander explained. "Give me electricity and I'm OK."

Over the years, Alexander has learned how to breathe without the machine, but it hasn’t always been easy.

Read More: Vaccines Will Prevent 20 Million Deaths and Save Poor Countries $820 Billion by 2020, Study Finds

"It was years and years and years before I developed another way of breathing. It's a task that requires a lot of energy. But I was challenged to do it, I did it, and it took me a year to get it up to [being able to breathe for] three minutes," he told As It Happens.

These days he can spend the day outside the lung, then gets into the machine to sleep.

Cases like this are the perfect example of why Global Citizen campaigns on polio eradication. Polio can have a life-long impact, and there’s no cure. But it is preventable with a vaccine.

Read More: It’s World Polio Day: Here’s What the World Accomplished This Year

In 1988, the World Health Assembly established the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. At the time, there were 350,000 cases of polio. In 2016, thanks to eradication efforts from around the world, there were only 37 cases.

Still, as a highly infectious disease, polio anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.

That is why Global Citizens took 39,436 actions on polio eradication in the first half of this year to urge G7 countries to step up their funding and efforts.

Read More: WTF Is Polio? 17 Facts About the Disease That We’re This Close to Eradicating

Canada and the UK have stepped up. This past June, Canada made a $100-million pledge towards polio eradication. In August, the UK committed £100 million of new funding for polio eradication.

The G7 Health Communique was released in November and it states the committee will sustain its efforts to eradicate polio through support of partners at the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Alexander is currently writing his memoir, “3 Minutes for a Dog.”

Read More: Let’s Fight Against Future Diseases Together

One of the reasons he chose to write the book was because new cases of polio continue to be detected, according to CBC.

"I didn't say, 'OK, all you guys out there with kids, this is what you need to do.' I didn't do that. I refuse to do that. It's their decision. But I gave them facts about polio," he said.

Limited access to conflict-torn countries, the anti-vaccine movement and new strains of polio resistant to traditional vaccines has made eliminating the virus once and for all difficult.

"Is there some risk in taking the shot? I don't know. But I know the risk of not taking it. It hasn't been fun, but it has been a challenge. Honestly, I'm always up for a challenge," he said.

Global Citizen is working with organizations like Rotary, world leaders and others to create a polio-free world. You can take action here.