TV actress Archie Panjabi is helping to eradicate polio worldwide.
The Blindspot star has been involved with the cause since 2011 when she became an ambassador for Rotary International’s This Close Campaign to end the disease. Panjabi, 44, tells PEOPLE the work she gets to do with the organization is a perfect match for her sensibilities — along with her very personal connection to the disease.
“It struck a chord in me immediately because I spent a couple of years in India and I remember seeing ailing children on the streets rolling themselves on planks of wood begging for money,” Panjabi recalls. “It made me feel really uncomfortable seeing that, but I never understood it and every time I asked about it, people kind of dismissed it. When I learned what polio was, and I realized that it was the same thing I had witnessed, I immediately joined.”
While polio was eradicated in the United States in the 1970s, it’s still an issue in foreign countries. And if it’s not completely eradicated it could come back — a resurgence in the disease would lead to 200,000 cases of paralysis per year.
“It’s a disease that attacks the nervous system leading to paralysis and sometimes death,” explains Panjabi. “The problem with polio is that it’s contagious. Even though there are only a few dozen cases left in the world, if it’s not completely eradicated and wiped off the planet, it can come back instantly.”
Panjabi recently worked with Rotary on the Virtual Reality experience that tells the story of Alokita, a young girl living in India and one of the last generation of children to be affected by polio. She’s also traveled the globe visiting areas still affected by the disease.
“I went to India a few years back and I actually got to go into some of the very remote villages to see how they operated and how passionate the women were in getting a hold of these children,” she says. “It’s not easy to tell children or parents in some areas, the villages, that they have to come in to get these vaccines. I also saw Doctor Mathew Varghese, who’s dedicated his entire life performing corrective surgery so that those that had [polio], he’s tried to give them comfort or a normal life, and seeing that was incredibly touching.”
Panjabi adds: “It’s just two drops of that vaccine that costs less than a dollar can prevent a child from getting it. The finishing line is close and that’s what motivates me.”
For more information about polio eradication efforts, visit endpolio.org