Sitting in his wheelchair on stage at the Manchester Central Convention Complex, his body a legacy to the devastating impact of polio, Paralympian Ade Adepitan reflected: “I cannot believe that, with all the technological advances we have, the human race has only managed to totally eradicate one disease from the world, and that was smallpox.
“Well let’s make polio the next one. And let’s make the total eradication of polio the lasting legacy of Rotarians to the human race.”
All weekend in Manchester for this 92nd Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland Conference, the P-word was everywhere. We’re this close, screamed the posters. The colour that April weekend was, of course, predominantly purple.
Ade Adepitan’s polio journey began in Lagos, Nigeria, where he contracted polio aged 15 months which affected the left side of his body. Ade was unable to walk without the use of callipers, so his family moved to the UK when he was just three-years-old.
Fast forward to 2017, bypassing a bronze wheelchair basketball medal at the Athens Olympics and the start of an impressive television career as a documentary-maker and sports show host, Ade is now very much at the forefront of the campaign, serving as a Rotary ambassador for the Purple4Polio campaign in these isles.
Let’s make the total eradication of polio the lasting legacy of Rotarians to the human race.”
His trademark dreadlocks and cheeky grin present a recognisable face in the battle against polio, his body acting as a clear reminder of the physical damage which it can inflict.
Besides speaking at the conference, Ade was on hand to launch the Wheels Relay from Manchester to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.
“At the Rotary conference I got to see an iron lung,” revealed Ade. “I have never seen one in my life.
“It is absolutely frightening that 30 or 40 years ago, people used to spend the whole of their lives entrapped in this lung because of this disease.”
These are the last few steps on the journey towards ridding the world of polio. When Rotary started the campaign to eradicate polio in 1985, there were about a thousand cases a day in 125 countries.
Nigeria is the only country in the African continent still reporting cases of polio, while Afghanistan and Pakistan are yet to be designated polio-free. There were just 22 new cases last year and this year there have been just five reported cases.
You have heard so many times that we are so close. Polio is an extremely difficult disease to eradicate, but this is a battle we have to win.”
Ade’s passion for the cause stems from his own plight, but also a desire to rid the world of inequality. At the conference, he turned the spotlight on the terrible connection between poverty and disability, citing Uganda where 90 per cent of disabled children do not have proper access to education.
“Children who don’t have access to schools are more than likely to grow up in poverty,” explained Ade. “They are more likely to become victims of abuse, and are more likely to die at a young age.”
Ade has faced his fair share of battles, both private and sporting, and he acknowledged in his speech the work which Rotarians are committed to around the world through polio.
“You have all saved the lives of millions of people because of your tireless work in the eradication campaign and now we are so close,” he told the audience.
“Now the last few steps in any journey are the toughest – trust me. I have been there. You have heard so many times that we are so close and in truth we are.
“But polio is an extremely difficult disease to eradicate but this is a battle which we have to win.
“We owe it to the millions of families who have been affected by polio since the first cases were diagnosed.
“We owe it to the vaccinators who have lost their lives working in extremely dangerous conditions. They risked their lives and paid the heaviest price to make the world a better place.
“And I urge you, all of you, to never give up until we have a polio-free planet and I believe that I will be there, working alongside you, all the way until we eradicate polio.”
Ade recognised the sacrifice which his family made 40 years ago by using all of their savings, while borrowing money from friends, to uproot from his homeland to Plaistow in East London.
“It was a decision which had a massive impact on the rest of my life,” he reflected.
“We have all got our own metaphorical volcanoes to climb. I have lived with polio for most of my life.
“I know I am one of the lucky ones and the sacrifices my parents made for me saved my life.”