Sorious Samura went to visit the latest victims of the polio outbreak in Congo-Brazzaville

Polio is a crippling disease that has been largely forgotten in the Western world.

Mass immunisation campaigns have led to a decrease by 99 per cent worldwide. But strains of the virus linger in parts of the developing world, and localised epidemics can still strike unexpectedly. 

Congo-Brazzaville is the latest country to fall victim, and recently an outbreak cost hundreds of lives.

Sorious Samura, a filmmaker from Sierra Leone, went to Congo-Brazzaville in search for a solution to eradicate polio entirely. In the following account he explains the making of The one per cent solution and the issues behind it.

My interest in film making stems from my desire to make the important interesting. I want my films to show people the human consequences of war, famine, corruption, disease, and all the other difficulties facing my continent, in the hope that circumstances can be improved.

My most famous film Cry Freetown is a brutal portrayal of atrocities committed during my country's civil war in 1999. The film shows a country that was dying, that was being left to die by the western world.  Many years later, I learned that Cry Freetown was a major factor in the UK government's decision to send troops into Sierra Leone.
So I know films can make a real difference to people's lives, and this is the reason I wanted to make this film – The one per cent solution.

'Kick polio out of Africa'

Polio is a disease that was very familiar to us as children growing up, but that did not make it easier for those that were afflicted.

Attitudes towards polio victims, and towards people with disability in general, still have a long way to go in Africa.

I am not proud to say it, but as I mention in the film, growing up in Sierra Leone we often used to make life hell for polio victims - teasing them and throwing stones at them.

Over the last couple of decades, however, extraordinary achievements by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has practically wiped this disease off the face of the planet. I remember back in the late 1980's when I was as a cameraman for UNICEF, the huge 'kick polio out of Africa' campaigns, supported by all the biggest names in African football at the time.

Polio cases became fewer and further between, and I was thinking the goal of eradication had basically been achieved. So when I heard about this new outbreak in the Congo, killing and paralysing so many people, it really came as a shock. It felt like we had turned the clock back 30 years.

The thought of polio making a full blown comeback in Africa sickens my heart, especially because I know what it will mean for the thousands of people that will have their lives ruined, if they manage to survive at all.

So when I was approached to make this film, I knew it was something I had to do. This is one of those rare opportunities where a film really could have an impact, to help change things for the better.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative finds itself at a critical juncture. We are so close to eradicating this disease, but there are funding shortfalls, and the initiative runs the risk of losing momentum. At present, since 1988, cases worldwide have been reduced by 99 per cent, but all the work that has gone into eradicating this disease could be undone if we do not come together for this final push.

This final one per cent may seem like an almost insignificant number, but having spent time with some of the victims in the Congo, I realise that it does not matter whether we are talking about 10 people or 1,000 – this is a horrible disease and if we have an opportunity to defeat it, we have to take it.

The tragedy of the polio outbreak

Congo Brazzaville is a country that is really on the rough side of the tracks, even by African standards. The city centre of Brazzaville, the country's capital city, is like a ghost town. There is very little development throughout the country, apart from in the oil rich city of Pointe-Noire, the epicentre of the recent polio outbreak and where we based the majority our trip.

Three civil wars in the last two decades have kept the country in an almost constant state of turmoil, reducing further the country's feeble infrastructure and social institutions. It really does feel like the long lost little brother to the much larger and more globally prominent Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), that sits just on the other side of the Congo river.

And it is these conditions that amplify the tragedy of this polio outbreak.

I feel the one story that really summed up the precarious balance these people find themselves in was Brice, a young man who had been struck down with the disease and was paralysed from the neck down. He was totally dependant on a ventilation machine to breathe, and it became apparent that he was in a life or death struggle, but not because of the disease.

His condition had stabilised, but people like Brice cannot afford to buy ventilation machines, and the hospitals cannot afford to give them away - the hospitals did not even have ventilation machines until they were given to them by the World Health Organisation.

And even if he could take the machine home, there are regular power-cuts throughout the country. In fact, we were told that the village where Brice was from had no electricity at all. So if he does not recover the ability to breathe on his own, the family faces the terrible prospect of having to switch the machine off.

It is a thought that makes my stomach turn. This is why I feel it is so important that we finish the job on polio now, while we still have the momentum. It is clear that if we take our feet off the gas, this disease will find a way back, and that means more people like Brice, all around the world.

To end the presence of this disease in our world would be an incredible achievement, for the whole of mankind. This film, for me, is my tiny contribution to this effort, and I hope we can all unite in the face of this common enemy and save future generations from having to face this terrible disease.

Source: Al Jazeera