Last month, GPP introduced you to three UK constituents who refuse to let polio own their lives. Although the viral disease has been eradicated by 99% across the globe, it never leaves an infected nervous system. This means that although new cases of polio have not been seen in the UK since the 1980’s, it is easy to forget the citizens who live with its after-effects. Anne Wafula-Strike is determined to change that.
Born in Mihuu, Kenya, Anne was paralysed upon contracting polio at the age of two. After moving to the UK in 2000, she became the first Kenyan wheelchair racer to represent her country at the Athens Paralympics in 2004—a mere two years after taking up the sport. She gained British citizenship in 2006 and is now a member of Team GB’s Women Wheelchair racing team. A tireless advocate for polio survivors, Anne is also an author (she has won the BBC’s ‘My Story’ competition and published her autobiography, In My Dreams I Dance, via HarperCollins in 2010) as well as the face of British Polio Fellowship’s 2012 Winter Warmth Appeal. She earned another personal/professional high this year when she carried the Paralympic Torch to represent AbleChild Africa. Last month, Anne represented Team GB and the BPF when she took place in a photo op hosted by GPP’s “The End of Polio” campaign with Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening, fellow Team GB athlete and polio survivor Ade Adepitan, and several UK polio survivors in Westminster Abbey. In honour of World Polio Day, which took place this week on 24 October, I spoke with Anne to find out how she entered wheelchair racing, the impact her Team GB status is having on polio survivors globally, and what she thinks should be done at home to acknowledge the disease.
What attracted you to the sport of wheelchair racing?
What attracted me to wheelchair racing was SPEED! We are the Formula One of disabled sport, but we female racers are far more glamorous.
You were born in Kenya and received your British citizenship in 2006. How has your status as a Team GB member enabled you to support athletes from poorer countries?
As a Paralympian I've had the great good fortune to travel the world. I recently went to Haiti to help support and promote disability sport and it was fantastic to see them send their first ever team to London 2012 Paralympics! I was also able to help a young woman from the DR Congo by giving her first ever racing wheelchair and training her to use it. I would love to do more work supporting potential athletes in developing countries so I can help others enjoy sport the way I have myself.
How have challenges such as disability classification and equipment quality impacted your Paralympic career?
As a polio survivor living in the UK I really know how difficult it is to keep warm in the winter, which is why I have given my full support to the British Polio Fellowship's 'Winter Warmth Appeal'. The outrageous price rises imposed by energy suppliers have made life even more difficult for millions, but especially for those of us who suffer from polio and PPS. I get no extra money from the government to help with huge bills, so I really appreciate the help I get from the BPF and would urge everyone to give what they can to support a very worthy cause.
Have you had the opportunity to return to Kenya and advocate for polio survivors throughout your native country?
I haven't had the opportunity to return to my native Kenya to help my fellow polio survivors overcome the difficulties they have to face on a daily basis with the knowledge I myself have gained through being a member of the BPF. I would love to be given an opportunity to do so.
What do you believe is the main improvement to disability access that must be made throughout the city of London?
London has a great record of providing access for disabled people, especially on buses and taxis. However, they need to improve access to the Underground system and make wheelchair users especially confident that it is safe. It would be great if the rail service were improved in ways that would make disabled people more independent instead of having to wait ages for ramps to be brought!
As a member of the British Polio Fellowship and survivor of polio, what do you think should be done to educate the public about citizens that live with polio and Post Polio Syndrome?
I believe that the public needs to know a lot more about polio and PPS. Just because polio has been eradicated in the UK that doesn't mean there aren't an awful lot of people living with it who need help, especially in these harsh times of economic depression. Here are some facts the public should know:
*Post Polio Syndrome is an incurable neurological condition that occurs in around 80% of people who have had polio.
*Individuals with PPS develop increasing weakness, fatigue, muscle pain, reduced stamina, breathing problems and COLD intolerance.
*Only 18% of GPs know how to treat PPS once diagnosed, and it takes an average of 6 years to be diagnosed.
Having met Justine Greening as part of GPP’s “The End of Polio” campaign, what are your hopes for her tenure as Secretary of State for International Development?
I would like to see a prime time 'History of Polio' that could deal with issues and show how people overcome the effects of the disease. Also, an information pack could be developed to issue to schools to raise awareness in young people, and also promote polio eradication in developing countries.
Lauren Maffeo is an MSc candidate at The London School of Economics and Political Science and Assistant Community Manager at Enternships. She recently worked as a media consultant for Global Poverty Project's "The End of Polio" campaign. Her essay on a 2011 volunteer trip to Swaziland, Africa, was published on The Wall Street Journal: Classroom Edition website last year and will appear in a forthcoming book on transformative tourism. Her spare time is no less active-she finished her first triathlon this year. She is an ambassador for the Global Poverty Project.