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Maine polio survivor helps vaccinate kids around the world

Ann Lee Hussey of South Berwick has helped immunize children against polio around the world.

MAINE, Maine — Oct. 24 is World Polio Day, a time to recognize the progress Rotary International and its partners have made to reduce polio cases worldwide, immunizing more than 2 billion children across 122 countries. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio is an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus, which can spread from person to person and cause paralysis and even death. There is no cure for polio, but it can be prevented with safe and effective vaccination, according to the CDC.

Ann Lee Hussey, a polio survivor from South Berwick, has made the eradication of the disease her life's work.

Hussey was just 18 months old when she contracted polio, which left her with weakened muscles in both of her legs, requiring her to wear a brace on her right leg. She underwent a number of surgeries, including one at the age of 3.

"The ligaments, they moved them around a little bit and reattached them, and that allowed me to walk," Hussey explained. 

Later in life, as a member of the Rotary Club of Portland Sunrise, she traveled to more than half a dozen countries, where polio is still a threat to immunize children by administering oral polio drops. 

During her first trip to India, Hussey found her calling after meeting a 9-year-old girl who had a metal brace on her right leg, similar to one she had as a child. 

"It was at that moment that I really decided that I would do everything I could that no other children could be affected," Hussey said. 

Over the past 20 years, Hussey has organized and led nearly 30 immunization teams. The teams also distribute "bicycle wheelchairs" to polio patients, who go from crawling to using hand pedals to get around.   

"They really feel that independence and they feel like their dignity is restored," Hussey added.

Rotary International's polio eradication efforts have helped reduce polio cases by more than 99 percent. But there are concerns that the fight against polio is not over, even in the U.S.

Following a case detected in a 20-year-old man in New York, more evidence of the disease has been collected there in wastewater. According to the Maine CDC, Maine’s childhood polio vaccination rate is 96 percent or higher for each age bracket. 

Dr. Dora Mills, the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, said unvaccinated adults and children need to be immunized.

"We do have kids that are not vaccinated, and they are high risk, particularly with polio circulating again, they are at risk for contracting it and they should get vaccinated," Mills said.

 As for Hussey, it's an important message that must be shared.

"Please protect your children, if you are going to get anything get the polio shot," Hussey said. 

If you would like to help end polio through Rotary International, click here.

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