Living With Polio

Polio's legacy lingers in Africa, even as eradication campaign nears completion

March 7, 2006

By Todd Pitman

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Philip Quaicoe had just learned to walk as a child when his legs mysteriously weakened and shriveled, forcing him to crawl again _ for the rest of his life.

Some blamed evil sprits. Others said it was karmic retribution for something his family did. In his native village in Ghana, nobody had ever seen anything like it. Nearly 20 years passed before Quaicoe found a doctor who had.

"He said, 'It's polio who made you like that,'" the 35-year-old Quaicoe recalled in an interview, speaking in choppy Ghanaian patois.

The World Health Organization launched a global immunization drive 17 years ago in hopes that one day no one would have to live like Quaicoe. But while great strides have been made, polio persists past the 2005 target set for eradicating the disease.

Lack of basic knowledge once fueled polio's spread in Africa, and in some places still does. Last year, 1,889 people were infected with polio worldwide, 775 of them in Africa, according to WHO.

Almost all of Africa's cases were registered in Nigeria, where authorities in that country's mostly Muslim north ordered an immunization boycott in 2003, claiming the vaccine was part of a U.S.-led plot to render Muslims infertile or infect them with AIDS.

Vaccination programs restarted in Nigeria in 2004, but the boycott had a global impact _ a strain of the polio virus that originated in Nigeria cropped up as far away as Indonesia last year.

Despite the setbacks, WHO said in a January report that polio is now endemic in only four countries _ fewer than ever.

WHO hopes to eradicate polio by the end of this year, but even if it succeeds, the disease's legacy will live on: Victims in wheelchairs are common sights on the streets of most African cities, begging for a living in countries too poor to provide social services.

Growing up in the seaside Ghanaian village of Takorda, a scattering of huts with a population of about 1,000, Quaicoe attended school like other children and played soccer in sandy fields with friends _ who allowed him to use his hands.

Not everyone was kind. Quaicoe's parents _ part protective, part ashamed _ tried to keep him home.

"People looked and laughed. They didn't want to be near me," Quaicoe said. "They asked, 'Why are you crawling on the ground? Why are you not like us?'"

He had no answer. Being handicapped was a deep source of pain.

"I asked my parents, why? Why am I alone? Why this sickness catch me?" Quaicoe said.

They had no answer, either.

Polio is spread when people who aren't vaccinated come into contact with the feces of those with the virus, often through polluted water. The virus usually targets vulnerable children younger than 5, attacking the central nervous system. It can cause paralysis within hours _ though only 1 percent of polio victims suffer that fate. It can also cause death.

Quaicoe's baffled parents took him to traditional witch doctors and more modern clinics, but found no cure. Some spoke of an expensive operation that could fix everything _ there isn't _ but it was financially out of reach.

When Quaicoe was 20, a team of nurses came to his village on a vaccination drive. A doctor with them saw Quaicoe and diagnosed him as having the disease.

Ashamed of begging in his own village, Quaicoe left Ghana not long after to break a lifelong dependence on his parents and escape the embarrassment the disease had wrought.

Here in Abidjan, a magnet for migrants from all over West Africa, he found dozens of polio sufferers begging in the streets.

Quaicoe wanted to be an electrician, a carpenter, even a shoemaker, but training cost money, and jobs are scarce.

So he spends most days at his favored intersection in the shadow of Abidjan's skyscrapers, crawling crab-like, walking on two powerful forearms with hands tucked into a pair of worn blue flip-flops.

Ivorians in smart suits stream by in BMWs and SUVs, trying not to look at the polio victims begging in the grime and heat.

Quaicoe's wide smile is a potent asset, though. One man greets it with a wink, flipping a coin into his outstretched hand. "Papa, my respects," Quaicoe said, hobbling back to the strategic downtown corner he has worked for a decade.

As night falls, he heads to the flimsy shack that is home on Abidjan's outskirts, usually by bus. Some polio sufferers get around in three-wheel, hand-peddled bikes, but it's easier to gain sympathy _ and handouts _ without them.

At night, Quaicoe says he sometimes dreams of "walking like the others."

More often, he dreams of getting married _ not easy in a traditional world where men are expected to be a family's primary breadwinner. He once had an Ivorian girlfriend, but the relationship ended after several years because of her family's disapproval.

"If you are a man with nothing to do, if you are disabled, handicapped, it is difficult to find a woman," Quaicoe said.

He wants to have children, too, and says he would ensure they're vaccinated against the wretched virus that paralyzed him.

After a life spent living with polio, he still has burning questions.

Rumpling his brow, Quaicoe leans forward at an interview's end and asks a reporter: "Tell me, please, what causes this disease?"

Copyright 2006 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.