April 24-30 is World Immunization Week and we at A Plus are proud to present a five-part series that celebrates the incredible impact vaccines have had on global health.
When we think of people who have been injured by polio, it's easy to conjure examples from a bygone era like Franklin D. Roosevelt or black-and-white images of children in iron lungs. Though the polio vaccine, introduced in 1953, has nearly driven the disease to eradication, it isn't gone yet. And there are still people who are being harmed by polio today.
Meet Minda Dentler: an international advocate for polio eradication through the use of vaccines. Her work is personal. She was injured by the disease during infancy in India before she was adopted by her American parents. She survived, but polio took away her ability to walk. Her disability has brought her plenty of adversity in life, but she always finds the strength to overcome each challenge.
Minda wasn't an athlete as a child, instead preferring to play games with her siblings and play piano. That changed 10 years ago when she got involved with Achilles International, an organization that makes athletic competitions accessible to people with disabilities.
She first began racing using a handcycle. She then set her sights on competing in a triathlon, but there was one problem: she didn't know how to swim. It was a considerable challenge, but she learned. Overcoming that obstacle allowed her to take on the challenge of competing against others, and she has now competed in several events in the US and even in Europe.
The perseverance that serves her so well in training for triathlons is the same passion and commitment she brings to raising awareness about polio eradication.
" Who would have guessed that a country that once had the highest number of polio cases worldwide could become polio free?"
Though she had long been familiar with Rotary International’s efforts to eradicate polio, she officially became a survivor ambassador in 2014, leading her to do numerous speaking engagements in the US and then travel to India to administer the vaccine. There’s a certain level of poetry in that, as she was able to personally give children the drops, ensuring that they would never contract the disease that paralyzed her when she was their age.
During this trip, she also visited patients in the polio ward at St. Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi. It was there that she met a survivor named Parveen who made Minda understand some key truths about her own life.
“Here she was, the same age as me, but we are living very different lives,” Minda told A Plus. “I was adopted and catapulted into a life of privilege. At age 37, Parveen is illiterate, without resources and has been a burden on her family. I do not want to see other children become victims of polio and suffer the lifelong effects of a preventable disease.”
Thanks to the dedication of advocates like Minda and volunteers at Rotary, the disease that was endemic to 125 countries 30 years ago is now in only 2 countries, with eradication on the horizon.
"I am very excited about the success of India being polio-free for almost 5 years. It just goes to show you that with well-executed strategies, political and community commitment and funding — what is truly possible," she said. "Who would have guessed that a country that once had the highest number of polio cases worldwide could become polio free?"
Even after polio is gone, Minda plans to continue advocating for vaccines for other diseases as well.
"Recently we have seen preventable diseases like measles impacting children in America because their parents have ignored the value of vaccines. I wish these parents could meet me," she said. "I am a reminder to parents who have opted out of vaccinating their children to please reconsider. They can see the challenges I have faced - paralysis and the reality of not being able to walk or run normally."
Minda has led such an incredible, inspirational life, but she sees her greatest achievement as raising her 15-month-old daughter. Though navigating New York City with a toddler on her lap in her wheelchair can be logistically difficult, motherhood has been nothing but a blessing.
"She fills me with so much pride and joy. I don't have any memories of life before I came to America or even pictures, so I relish experiencing and capturing my daughter's milestones," she explains. "As someone who doesn't have use of her legs, I am enjoying watching her learn how to walk and I will be excited to see her run."
Join Minda in the fight to eradicate polio by donating to Rotary International here. For every dollar that comes in, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will donate $2, which triples the power of the contribution.
Cover image: Amit Samanta
Check out our entire World Immunization Week series: