I was seven months old when my mother took me to see a doctor in Suran, my hometown. I had a high fever, and she had noticed weakness in both my legs. It was then that I was diagnosed with polio.
Polio is a highly contagious disease that attacks the nervous system. It can cause paralysis or even death among young children. While the disease is not curable, it can easily be prevented by vaccination.
Growing up with polio was a challenge. I always felt like I could not keep up with my peers. I remember leaving for school an hour earlier in the morning, sometimes in the dark, to reach class on time.
Whenever my friends wanted to play football after school, I would ask them to switch games so that I could also play. We often played volleyball in the street with a makeshift net because it did not involve much running.
Polio might have left me crippled, but it did not thwart my determination. On the contrary, it motivated me to save children from this disease so they wouldn’t have to go through what I’ve been through. This is why I studied medicine.
During my years at university, I picked my friends according to their pace of walking — I couldn’t befriend fast walkers! I studied hard, graduated and started working on national polio immunisation campaigns in 1987, only a year after these kinds of campaigns were launched in Syria.
For the past 40 years, I’ve worked on national and regional immunisation campaigns, including those against polio. I remember when I did not have a car, I would borrow a motorcycle and go through the narrowest alleys carrying my icebox full of vaccines, looking for children and their parents in the streets.
The last documented polio case in Syria was in 1999. I felt that we had defeated this dangerous disease, that my calling in life was accomplished — until it returned again in 2013. I cried when we received confirmation of 35 polio cases in Deir-Ez-Zor and Aleppo. All the pains of my childhood returned, only to make me more determined to reach every single child with the life-saving vaccine.
During campaigns to contain the outbreak, we went door-to-door, to ensure all children, wherever they are, are protected against the disease. We focused on the most vulnerable children in hard to reach areas, remote villages, and camps and shelters housing internally-displaced families. This was critical, since the many years of conflict forced the only hospital in Suran to shut down.
But after years of violence, displacement, and unemployment, access is not the only challenge we are facing. Parents are more focused on putting bread on the table and securing the most basic needs of their children, like warm winter clothes. They are forgetting the importance of vaccines.
So we held awareness sessions for parents, addressed their misconceptions and answered all their questions about the safety and critical importance of vaccines.
I have always believed that I contracted polio to be a real-life reminder for parents about the consequences of their children missing out on immunization. So I make sure to always accompany health workers and community outreach volunteers.
It is a priceless feeling to vaccinate children against polio.
I know that we can change children’s lives forever, and we need all the help we can get to make sure that no child is left out of a football match because he or she can’t run. No child should spend his life on crutches. No child should live with a disability that can be easily prevented.
Dr. Askar works on UNICEF-supported immunisation campaigns in the governorate of Hama, to protect children against polio and other diseases. UNICEF provides vaccines, cold chain equipment, and training for health workers as well as support to community outreach volunteers who hold awareness sessions on the importance and safety of vaccines.