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Volume 1 - No.2 - 1996

Fermín: Making Polio History
By Jennie Vásquez-Solís, photos by Susana Pastor

Luis Fermín Tenorio Cortez, 7 years old, has left his small town in central Peru where the Andes meet the Amazon, and has moved to Lima, the country's capital, where his status as a celebrity has not interfered with the almost-normal life of a young boy.

Fermín's place in the public's eye stems from the unfortunate fact that his was the last case of polio reported in the Americas back in 1991, when he was only 2 years old. The eradication of this childhood disease from the Hemisphere was only achieved following a massive vaccination effort by the countries, launched in 1985 by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which culminated in 1994 when an international commission certified that the Americas was free of polio.

Since the time doctors first examined Fermín, his young life has gone through several stages. After the initial notoriety subsided, his life regained much of its normalcy. He began to grow. And soon he realized that he couldn't run as well as his brothers and friends and that he had trouble speaking (he could only say two or three words well).

So he began to isolate himself in one corner of the house where he lived. He didn't play very much and had behavioral problems. By age 4, he still could not speak: instead, he would ask for things using signs and he imitated the sounds of the parrots and chickens that traversed the family kitchen.

He's in the first grade now, and when visitors arrived at his school one day recently, the first thing he did was hold out his hand and ask, "Do you want to see my notebook?"

His handwriting is very good, even though he only learned to write last April and came to this school with a series of problems. Psychologists working with him felt, nonetheless, that it would be best to place him in a regular school for his formal education.

Pichanaqui is like other towns in Peru's remote mountainous jungle area that the Peruvians call la ceja de selva--literally, "the jungle's eyebrow." The streets are mostly unpaved. Cement and brick houses flank those made of adobe, heavy blocks of sun-dried clay and earth. Vegetation is lush, and the people farm and work in small businesses.

Fermín's mother, María Abilia Cortez, has three other children to care for and runs a small business. Hers is a fight for survival. Like many other mothers in rural Peru, she is the head of household and is neither able--nor would know how--to give her son the specialized care he requires.

A little over two years ago, the Peruvian Rotarians, through their National Immunization Committee, agreed to assume responsibility for Fermín's long-term rehabilitation process and to secure for him the kind of unique education that he needs. They brought him to Lima, and, with the support of other organizations, conducted a comprehensive evaluation of his physical and mental condition. Rotarians Gustavo Gross and Julio Ruíz, who have been following his progress since then, say that he arrived sick, with earaches, sores on his feet, a slight stutter, and an attention disorder.

Today, Fermín has all but overcome the majority of his difficulties. According to his teacher, Zoila de la Cruz, not only has he risen above these problems, he has acquired a position of leadership among his classmates. She says he is a happy child, playful and affectionate, and likes to receive from others those small gestures that confirm that the affection is mutual. On the other hand, he is independent and completes all his assignments, including the series of crayon drawings commissioned to adorn the classroom wall.

The prospect of showing off his work delights Fermín. He climbs on top of the first desk, jumping across to the second--despite the steel brace holding his shriveled left leg in place--until he can stand proudly in front of his work and unfurl his arm with unabashed pride.

De la Cruz says that the boy receives no preferential treatment. He likes to be called on to write on the blackboard, he actively participates in class discussions, and he works hard to improve his handwriting, which already is better than average for his age.

A young psychology student accompanies him to and from school and at home, encouraging him along the road of his physical and mental development. A psychologist periodically evaluates his progress. He takes classes with a speech therapist to overcome language problems, and once a month health workers examine him to determine the daily exercises he should do to strengthen his leg muscles. When he is older, doctors will decide if surgery could help his condition.

Fermín has become the symbol of the polio crusade, which marked only the second time in history a disease had been targeted for eradication (smallpox was the first). The spirit of international cooperation forged during those crucial years is now being applied to new challenges in the area of immunization against and elimination of childhood diseases. As new public health victories are scored, fewer children will be dealt a blow like the one that threatens to compromise Fermín's chances for a bright future.

It is time for the vistors to leave. Fermín waves and tells them cheerfully, "Come and see me again."

"We will, Fermín. We will," the visitors reply. "To learn from you."

Jennie Vásquez-Solís is a print and broadcast journalist currently based in PAHO's country office in Lima, Peru.
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