Celebrating World Polio Day


Oct 22, 2019

When I meet someone new, it often takes me a minute to shake their hand. It’s not that I’m shy. I just have to take a moment to balance myself so I can lean on one crutch while freeing my other hand.

I had polio as a child and now, every day of my life, I strap on leg braces and pick up crutches in order to get around. Yes, these physical constraints sometimes slow me down. But I’m truly one of the luckiest people I know. And I consider World Polio Day (October 24) a cause for celebration.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners, polio has been nearly eradicated. Polio cases have dropped by 99.9 percent over the past three decades. Last year, there were only 33 cases reported in just two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This is very personal for me. Thousands of children are now spared the crippling effects of this terrible disease. They will never know the pain I experienced as a boy in Korea, placed in an orphanage because my family couldn’t care for a disabled child. They will never know what it is like to crawl from place to place because crutches are unaffordable.

I was incredibly fortunate to be adopted by an American family who gave me an excellent education and provided the healthcare and support I needed to grow into a successful adult. I was able to attend an Ivy League university and receive an MBA from a top school. I’ve had a great career as an executive in healthcare companies and now in the nonprofit sector.

But wherever I go, the effects of polio go with me.

At times, that can be difficult. Some of the most common situations—a flight of stairs, a rocky path, a door that swings in—can slow me down. And yet my ability to live a successful life as a person with obvious disabilities has become an advantage in my work.

As president and CEO of MAP International, my mission is to help bring medicine to the world, especially in places where poverty conditions make healthcare a luxury. When I travel in developing countries, the fact that I am disabled sometimes brings stares, but people also come out to greet me.

Disabled persons in poor countries are some of the most disadvantaged and marginalized people in the world. Their families are burdened by their care. They often can’t attend school or work. And in many places, they are subjected to cruelty brought about by superstitions.

I’ll never forget meeting a 12-year-old girl in Cambodia who only had one leg. She mostly hid in her house, unable to attend school and subject to the widely held belief that her condition was punishment for some sort of sin committed by her or her family.

In fact, the only sin involved was that the girl lacked access to antibiotics. Because of that, after stepping on a nail, her foot and leg went untreated until severe infection set in. By the time a doctor saw her leg, it was too late—it had to be amputated at her thigh in order to save her life.

I often think of this girl as I talk about MAP and how important it is to provide medications like antibiotics to all corners of the world. So much needless pain and suffering can be avoided by providing low-cost, life-changing medicines to people in need. My own life would be so different if a 60-cent polio vaccine had been available to me. That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to bringing medicine to places in the world where it’s not yet available. I’ve written about my journey in my book, The Crutch of Success—From Polio to Purpose, Bringing Health & Hope to the World.

As a member of Rotary International, I am so proud of the organization’s efforts to eradicate polio. And as president of MAP International, I continue to dedicate myself to bringing medicine to all children of the world so that they can enjoy their young lives and grow into healthy adults.

So much has been accomplished with the near eradication of polio. So much more needs to be done in bringing health and hope to children in poor communities around the world. As we celebrate this day, let’s also dedicate ourselves to giving a healthy future to children everywhere.

Steve Stirling is president and CEO of MAP International (www.map.org), a nonprofit dedicated to bringing medicine to the world. His current book, The Crutch of Success, tells his story—from an orphanage in Korea to executive positions in the US while dealing with the crippling effects of polio.

Did you enjoy this blog post? Then you will love Steve Stirling’s book The Crutch of Success!

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