Dennis Ogbe is a world-class athlete, husband, father, and polio survivor. He is the top ranked American and U.S. champion in both shot put and discus classifications. His native country of Nigeria recently had an outbreak of polio in August 2016 – the first cases of wild polio virus detected on the Africa continent in more than two years, prompting an emergency vaccination campaign across Nigeria and surrounding countries in the Lake Chad region. Nigeria and its neighbors continue urgent steps to reach all children with immunization and to improve surveillance. We sat down with Dennis to share the personal story of someone who is still living with the effects of the disease and his hope for the future of children, in Nigeria and throughout the world.
Tell us about your personal experience with polio.
Polio will affect me as long as I’m alive. Once you get polio, you can’t get rid of it. You may live with a deformity for the rest of your life, and if you are lucky, you are going to be alive to go through the different pain that exists from it. But how you live with it depends on your environment, where you are living, and who is advocating for you to keep your head above the water. I can walk now, with a very big limp, but the memory of my old wheelchair and crutches will never go away. Because of the limp, I have to be cognizant of where I step, how I walk, if it snows or rains, when I climb up or down stairs, or when I’m carrying my children. I have to make sure my balance is right, and because my left leg is still paralyzed and weak, I still fall down. This is something I am going to live with forever. This is why I push and advocate for the vaccine, so no child has to go through what I’m going through.
Why is it important to maintain support for finishing the job of polio eradication?
Polio is almost eradicated. It remains endemic in only three countries, Nigeria, where I’m originally from, Afghanistan and Pakistan. So the focus now is to make sure we eradicate polio once and for all. A lot of the work that has been done over the years by foundations and organizations have helped get resources to these countries. But we shouldn’t stop there. Advocacy needs to continue. Children across the world still need to be immunized so polio doesn’t come back. Nigeria was polio free until the recent outbreak, it’s a continuous process. We need to be polio free once and for all. As long as polio exists anywhere, it’s a threat everywhere. We need to get families and children into the clinics and hospitals to get the polio vaccination and others. In parts of the world, like Nigeria, the educational gap is very wide. So if we don’t push grassroots education, we will still have this margin. We need to make sure children have the vaccine. It’s crucial for their survival.
What encouragement can you give to other survivors? What advice would you give to their family and friends?
I am so lucky to have polio and only have a limp. I walk now without a wheelchair or crutches. As I said, I still fall down, but for a lot of other polio survivors, many of them cannot walk and they can’t do anything by themselves. They are in survival mode. But what I will tell them is that where there is life, there is hope. Whatever the deformity, they can educate themselves. They can better their life. They are mentally alive. They can use their voice for advocacy. They can use it for the good of themselves or for the good of other citizens, wherever they are in the world. My family never gave up on me. I am so blessed to be where I am now, but it took a lot of people to get me here – my teachers, my priests, my friends, my neighbors, and my family. They showed me what I can do. My dad never went to school, and what he gave me was education. That was what broke the barrier. Without education, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The things I do today were unimaginable when I was 3 or 4, still with my crutches and wheelchair. I didn’t think I would be anyone of significance. But all these people keep me going; where there is life, there is hope. As family and friends of polio survivors, try to listen to the survivors, and try to help them how they need to be helped. But it’s up to the survivor to help themselves too – to do something worthwhile, noble, and something that helps others. I hope all polio survivors have the opportunity to raise families themselves and to earn a livelihood.
You are a longtime supporter of the Shot@Life Champion Summit. What keeps you coming back every year?
I know the job isn’t finished. I’m 100% vested in this cause, because I live it, and I can use my voice to encourage other champions. America has been polio free for decades now, so having someone attend the summit with polio shows people that polio still exists. I’m a walking billboard to show it is still a current disease. I come every year to show not just my solidarity, but that yes, this guy has polio, he comes from a country that still has polio, he come from a very remote village, and look at where he is now and what he is doing. I come every year to encourage and thank the Champions, but also remind them that we still need action. We still need resources and man power. We need the Champions to go to their Congressmen and women to advocate so the U.S. government keeps allocating money for vaccines year after year. Not just for polio, but all vaccine-preventable diseases. We are now living in a world where people travel back and forth easily between countries, so just because a disease is not in the U.S. now, doesn’t mean a catastrophe couldn’t happen. And the only way to ensure that it doesn’t is by completely eradicating the disease.
When someone comes up to you at the gym while you are training and asks about your condition, what is your response to them?
Polio still exists. Just because you don’t see it around you, it’s there. Some younger people don’t even know what polio is. Some older people may know someone who had polio back in the day. But not today. We need to educate people. Tell them what polio really is and show them that people with polio can live to their best potential. But no kid should have to grow up experiencing the challenges that I have. And they don’t need to.
What do you hope for the future?
We need to stay optimistic. We have come a long way, but there is still more to go. I hope the future is better; the future should be the 100% eradication of polio. Once we cross that finish line, then we can rest. Then we have really done it. For now, we just need to do the best we can to get there.
The world is very close to eradicating polio. Over 2.5 billion children have been vaccinated since 1988, and the number of polio cases per year is down by 99 percent. When we succeed, no child will be paralyzed by polio ever again, making polio the second human disease eradicated in history!