Global Health: The Long War on Polio, as Recalled by Its Generals
“Coffee With Polio Experts” will not be picked up by Hulu anytime soon, but there is something compelling in these short videos put out by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
The formula is simple: Doctors who have spent years fighting polio in the world’s most remote regions sit down over coffee with a World Health Organization representative to tell war stories.
The production values are amateurish — cups rattle, the bustle of the coffee shop intrudes. But the tales can be gripping, and they are recalled by soldiers who save lives rather than taking them.
When the eradication drive began in the 1980s, polio paralyzed 1,000 children a day. Now, fewer than 100 a year suffer that fate. But the virus is never quite extinguished. Field commanders explain how the battle must be fought, literally village-to-village and house-to-house.
In the most recent video, Dr. Naveed Sadozai describes pulling off a highway in Afghanistan, hoping to vaccinate sheepherders in a camp. To avoid land mines, he drives only in recent tire tracks; because the herders have huge attack dogs, he cajoles them from inside the car.
To win over a father skeptical of the vaccine, Dr. Sadozai offers to buy a sheep and chooses an emaciated one with a withered leg. When the herder explains why his choice is bad, Dr. Sadozai turns the tables, saying he will let the herder be the sheep expert if he can be the medical expert. He prevails: All the father’s children are vaccinated.
In another video, Christopher Maher describes how the eradication campaign stopped the assassinations of vaccinators by the Pakistani Taliban: staffers recruited additional vaccinators from the same clans as the attackers.
In a third, Dr. Ousmane Diop, a laboratory expert, explains how, as the virus became ever more rare, the campaign shifted from taking stool samples from crippled children to sampling the sewage of entire neighborhoods for signs of the virus.
And while it has nothing to do the eradication campaign, a startling polio-related video can be seen on the website Sweatpants and Coffee: Dergin Tokmak, a child of Turkish immigrants in Germany whose legs were withered by childhood polio, does a leaping, spinning break-dance routine on a pair of bright red crutches.
Under the name Stix, Mr. Tokmak danced with the Cirque du Soleil for several years.