Better Than a Cure: One Man's Journey to Free the World of Polio

Reviewed: April 13, 2010
By: Ramesh Ferris with John Firth
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
192 pages, $21.95

Despite a publisher’s misfire back in January, Better than a Cure, the remarkable story of Ramesh Ferris’ Cycle to Walk trip across Canada in 2008 is now on shelves in the Yukon, as well as available from online sellers Chapters/Indigo and

Just this week the book was officially launched in Whitehorse on April 12, the same day that Ferris started his original journey in 2008. There was a lot of symbolism tied up in that date, which is why co- authors Ferris and Firth fought so hard to maintain it.

As they note in the book:

“April 12 wasn’t a random pick.

“It was that day in 1980 that Terry Fox dipped his artificial leg in the Atlantic Ocean, at Cape Spear, Newfoundland, which was to be our end point, and started his cross-country run for cancer. I wanted to honor his memory.

“Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945.

“And April 12, 1955, was the day that Jonas Salk announced a vaccine had been discovered and tested that gave us better than a cure for Polio – it gave us a prevention.”

The idea that prevention is better than a cure is repeated time after time in this book, in which the authors emphasize that there is no need for anyone, anywhere, to ever get polio. A simple vaccine holds the disease at bay.

Ferris, who was born in India, caught the disease because the vaccine was not available to him when he was an infant. Placed for adoption by his birth mother, who had been abandoned by his father, and who could not begin to give him the care he needed, Ramesh was adopted and brought to Canada by the Ferris family in 1982, and was raised in Whitehorse during Ron Ferris’ tenure as Anglican Bishop of the Yukon. He completed high school in Sault St. Marie after the Ferris family moved there, but returned to Whitehorse as a young man after graduating from college in Thunder Bay.

It was in that same year, 2001, that his father presented him with the documentation that enabled him to track down and visit his birth mother in India in 2002. It was during that visit to Coimbatore, where he saw polio victims far less fortunate than himself, that the seeds of discontent which gave rise to his cross-Canada hand cycle trip first took root. It was there, indeed, that he saw his first hand cycle.

In much of the world, a world without forearm crutches, braces, wheelchairs and the level of medical care available in Canada, Ferris realized that he would have had a much different quality of life, perhaps have been doomed to be a “crawler”, a person who must drag useless legs behind him in the dust while hitching forward with hands and arms.

“I saw people sitting on the ground with skinny legs curled or twisted up underneath them. I saw one or two who were crawling with cut up tire pieces on their knees and wearing sandals like gloves on their hands.”

These sights caused him to become dissatisfied with the life he was living in the Yukon, and started him thinking about what he might do to raise money for research and, more importantly, to raise the profile of a disease that is almost invisible in Canada, but could easily make a comeback if people become lax about or resistant to the ounce of prevention that is worth tonnes of cure - the simple vaccination.

Much of this book is the story of how Ferris recruited a support group and the assistance of the local Rotary Club, as well as a province by province account of his trip across Canada, but the authors have also provided some necessary background on the disease itself and the history of the attempts to battle it.

There’s no cure for Poliomyelitis, but the vaccination provides almost total immunity. The chances of suffering any sort of negative reaction to the vaccines is miniscule compared to the absolute risk an unvaccinated person runs if he or she comes into contact with a carrier of the virus.

Still, there are places in the world where the vaccine is resisted, and places where it is claimed, as it was with the H1N1 vaccine last year, that the medicine is part of a capitalist/western plot to poison the rest of the world or certain racial groups. Additionally, the campaign to eradicate the disease has been so successful in most Western nations that many people believe it is gone and therefore don’t worry about continuing their immunization treatments. This could be a recipe for a disastrous resurgence of the disease.

Ferris found that he was not the only person out there trying to raise awareness for something as he travelled across the country. In the book he notes that “there must be 40 or 50 cross-country fund raising campaigns going on in Canada every summer.” Some even have similar names. In Winnipeg, for instance, Cycle to Walk met Cycle to Work, an environmental awareness campaign. There was also Wheel to Walk, a wheelchair based journey.

After he had finished his trek, Ferris had the opportunity, sponsored by Rotary International, to return to India and participate in an immunization drive there. His second trip effected him even more than his first and confirmed his sense of urgency about his mission.

“If you know you haven’t received the vaccine and you are even remotely questioning its value, I wish you could see what I saw in India! A young man covered with dirt. He had small, shriveled legs and he crawled on the ground. That is his life. It could have mine.”

Unless the drive to eradicate the disease continues it could make a comeback; this is something which Ferris very much wants people to be aware of. The manner in which H1N1 (or Swine Flu) spread world wide from its origin point in Mexico last year provides a stark illustration of what globalization means when it comes to viruses and diseases. Ferris is now the chair of the Whitehorse Rotary Club’s PolioPlus committee, seeking to revive a program which was begun in 1985, but which has lost its head of steam over the last 25 years.

The publication of this book is part of his effort to turn that around.