One Woman’s Mission: To Immunize Children Worldwide With the Polio Vaccine

Ann Lee Hussey will not rest until polio, the debilitating disease that has afflicted her since childhood, is eradicated worldwide. An inspiring look at her very personal quest.

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Every day, there is pain. Ann Lee Hussey’s right leg is an inch and a half shorter than her left, causing her to limp. Her feet are misshapen, and her joints and muscles ache so badly by the end of the day that it’s tough to go to sleep.

And yet within the last decade this 58-year-old has made 20 trips to some of the most rugged and dangerous places in the world—Mali, Nigeria, Chad. Each time, she leads a team of one to two dozen volunteers with the same ambitious goal: to immunize as many children as possible, thereby ensuring that they will not contract polio, an infectious viral disease that can attack nerves and cause paralysis. It’s the same ailment that has wreaked havoc on Ann Lee’s life. “I get exhausted sometimes, but then I remember: I never want another child to endure what I’ve gone through,” she says.

Polio is not something most Americans think about anymore. Thanks to the vaccine, it has been eliminated in the United States (though there was a small outbreak in 2005). And as recently as 2010 it was on track to become the second disease afflicting humans (after smallpox) to be wiped out entirely. However, as of last year, 16 countries still reported cases of this incurable disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ann Lee is determined to keep those numbers from climbing. But it’s not easy. She believes that she is afflicted with post-polio syndrome (PPS), a progressive condition that causes muscular weakness, pain, and exhaustion for up to 25 percent of polio sufferers.

PPS can affect the nerves that control muscles and contribute to the rapid aging of those muscles, according to the CDC. “I’m afraid of PPS,” says Ann Lee. “But I try not to let the fear control me.” Near her home in South Berwick, Maine, she practices yoga, gets massages, and swims to help herself cope with the symptoms. And she endeavors to stay upbeat: “I’m not a ‘woe is me’ person. I live in the moment. And I believe in what I’m doing. Sometimes I think I got polio for a reason. It has given me more drive, more determination.”