In a continent of 54 countries, Nigeria has the unflattering distinction of being the only one yet to be completely certified polio-free. But it is gratifying that the country recently celebrated three years free of wild polio cases. What this means is that if no case is detected in about six months, the country and indeed Africa will be certified free of the crippling disease. But we hasten to add that Nigeria got this far some three years ago before two cases were detected in Borno State, thereby reversing the gains already made.
Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus which invades the nervous system and often causes irreversible paralysis. It can strike at any age but mainly affects children under five. In 2008 there were 803 confirmed polio cases which represented a whopping 85 per cent in Africa. By the following year the number came down to 388. As at March 2010, the country reported only one. While there is no known cure for polio, it can be prevented through vaccination. Yet as long as a single child remains infected with polio, unvaccinated children all over the world are at risk.
Strings of factors undermine confidence in the country’s ability to emulate other parts of the world, except Afghanistan and Pakistan, in interrupting the wild polio virus. One, the violence in the north and consequent insecurity had for years curtailed the activities of the vaccinators who moved from house to house to deliver the life-saving vaccinations. As a result of this, many people, particularly children, under the age of five, were not immunised. Two, cultural and religious factors have become sources of serious challenges in reaching millions of the children. Some religious leaders had reportedly opposed the immunisation campaigns on the ground that it was a western ploy to make people infertile.
Polio is a disease that should be taken seriously. In 1996, polio virus paralysed more than 75,000 children across the African continent. That year, the late South African President, Nelson Mandela, launched a campaign, ‘Kick Polio out of Africa’, marking the beginning of a unique, cross-sectoral and cross-continental movement to protect all children from paralysis. So successful was the campaign that as of March 2018, there was no cases of wild poliovirus type-1 reported in any country in African for over one and half years.
That there are setbacks despite the efforts of recent years is why the relevant authorities must now be alive to their responsibilities. To rout the disease in the country once and for all, it is crucial for all stakeholders to continue to take steps to reach all children with vaccines, strengthen surveillance, and stay fully committed at all levels to ending polio. It is also essential to maintain financial commitments. If achieved, the certification of Nigeria as polio-free will be a soothing testimony to the efforts of donors and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners.
While we must commend the current administration for building on the efforts of the previous government by re-energising the process, there is a need to do more. All officials must roll up their sleeves to tackle the polio challenge. State governors across the country, especially in the high-risk states, should take the lead with their local government officials in every community, particularly in Borno and adjourning states in northern Nigeria. Since a threat of polio in any state is a threat to all Nigerian children, routine immunisation must be intensified.
That Nigeria remains “one of only three countries in the world endemic to wild poliovirus, alongside Afghanistan and Pakistan” is an emblem of shame. The key to ridding the country of the devastating disease is a return to routine immunisation regime.