Colin Powell was born in May 1949, and by November of that year, he had caught a fever. The doctor was called, and he said that Powell was just teething and it was nothing to worry about.
But the next day, Powell’s mother noticed that his legs were no longer moving on the mattress of his cot. So she called the doctor back, he lifted Powell’s leg, and it fell straight back onto the mattress.
It was then that the doctor changed his diagnosis — to polio.
A polio epidemic swept the UK in the 1950s — striking fear into the hearts of a whole generation. Polio mainly affects children under 5 years old, and 1 in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among these, up to 10% of cases prove fatal, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), as patients’ breathing muscles become immobilised.
In the 1950s in Britain, there were a reported 45,000 cases of polio and hundreds died.
Fast-forward 70 years, and polio is right on the brink of being a thing of the past. It’s now 99.9% eradicated, and is endemic in just three countries in the world: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
In 2017, there were 22 cases of wildpolio virus reported in just two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan — down from 350,000 cases of the virus in 125 countries in 1988. It’s massive progress in just 29 years.
We’re so close, which is why Global Citizen, Powell, and health advocate and NHS worker Hauwa Mohammed headed to Whitehall in London on Tuesday to hand in a petition signed by 27,782 Global Citizens — calling on the UK government to continue its investment in vaccines to help ensure that preventable diseases like polio won’t impact any more lives.
We met with Minister of State Andrew Murrison and MP Dr. Philippa Whitford, chair of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Vaccinations, to discuss the great support Britain has already given to the global effort to eradicate polio and to call on the UK to keep pushing through that last 0.1%.
We just had an excellent meeting at @DFID_UK with @AWMurrison, handing over a petition with 27,782 of your signatures urging the UK to further fund the fight to #EndPolio! ✊— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) July 16, 2019
Here’s what happened (thread). pic.twitter.com/BAGkQOmpHm
Powell, speaking to the minister, shared his three wishes — inspired by a lifetime marked by the effects of polio.
“I wish I could dance,” Powell told Murrison. “I wish I could experience the joint emotions of music and movement together. But I never have, and I never will.
“I wish I could jump on a bus, or run for a train,” he continued. “Not have to plan every public transport journey like a military operation to make sure that it’s step-free and that there are ramps for access when needed. Never have. Never will.
“Finally, I wish I could perform the simple task of just bending down and tying up my own shoelaces,” he said. “Not relying on my mother when I was a child, and now looking to a carer to assist me.”
He finished: “Again, it will never happen. And the reason: polio.”
As well as meeting Murrison and Whitford, Global Citizen also handed over more than 500 individual messages personally written by Global Citizens, all about why they want the UK to push forward the fight to end polio.
“I know from experience how devastating this crippling disease can be,” read one message. “It needs to be eradicated now while we have the chance. We are so close to achieving this but we have to work that little bit harder to pass this hurdle.”
“This devastating disease is almost eradicated, but while it is still 'almost' it is still a danger to the rest of the world,” added another. “Keep fighting it until it is completely eradicated.”
A third read: “We cannot take our gift of health for granted and we can do so much to make sure every child has the chance of receiving and enjoying the gift of life too. Please don’t tire of making good decisions and policies in health issues, and especially where children are concerned.”
And Whitford had a personal message for every one of the over 27,000 Global Citizens who put their name to the petition.
“Well done for stepping forward and adding your name,” she said. “I think [the minister] was impressed at the sheer scale of it … I think there’s definitely a willingness and a commitment to that.”
She added: “I think the challenge now is to get that down on paper or that statement out in public as soon as possible so that, like with the commitment to the Global Fund, the contribution from the UK is putting pressure on other countries to step up to the plate to commit and get the job done.”
In response to your signatures and messages, Murrison agreed that the progress against polio so far has been extraordinary — but that the work isn’t yet done in making sure that every child is safe from the disease.
“The numbers for polio are right down,” he told Global Citizen. “Some people say, well, it’s job done. But unless we just eradicate this disease full stop, it will come back, and the consequences will be appalling.”
“So I think one last push and we will get this over the line, and we can consign this awful disease to the history books,” he said.
And when we do ultimately eradicate polio, picture Colin Powell on that day.
“It will be tears of joy,” he said, imagining how it will feel. “It will be a relief to know that all the hard work that thousands of people put into this campaign and stood with it: the people I meet from medical backgrounds; the people I meet from politics.
“You are the generation that never knew it, and yet you’re taking it on board,” he added. “And it’s just lovely to see youth doing this job, for where the people who really saw it in the raw are now ageing and passing on, and now the next generation say, we’re here to do it for you.”