By Sola Ogundipe
ABOUT two decades ago, the notion around the world was that Nigeria would be the last country in the world to eradicate polio. There was good reason for this notion. At that point in time the idea of polio eradication was a pipe dream.
Nigeria had the largest reservoir for the wild polio virus. Its burden and transmission rates of polio were also among the highest in the world.
Today, however, it is a completely different story. There has been no case of polio in the country since the last documented case on 21st August, 2016. Now, the country is on the verge of eradicating polio as it gets set to be declared polio-free by the World Health Organisation, WHO, in 2020.
Nigeria made history on, August 21, 2019, having achieved three years without a case of Wild Polio Virus (WPV). Nigeria’s last WPV case was isolated in a child in war-torn Borno State on August 21, 2016. The milestone has put Africa on track to be certified polio free.
According to the WHO, after three years of no incident of the virus on the African continent, official ‘certification’ of polio eradication would be conducted at the regional level.
This certification would happen after careful assessment of the risk of missed transmission in inaccessible areas of Borno, and other countries in the region where there is lack of confidence in surveillance.
This is a major victory for the nation’s polio eradication efforts. Africa will be certified free of the wild polio virus by the WHO-backed Global Polio Eradication Initiative, GPEI, once the remaining samples have been analysed.
One of the arrowheads for attainment of this milestone is the Executive Director of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency, NPHCDA, Dr Faisal Shuaib.
Shuaib, a public health specialist, and one-time Senior Programme Officer, Africa, for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is well experienced in developing and implementing strategies on polio outbreak response activities in Africa.
In 2014, he coordinated Nigeria’s response to the outbreak of Ebola as Incident Manager of the Ebola Emergency Operations Centre.
“We are here acknowledging this milestone while ensuring there is no complacency about the quantum of work that needs to be done to ensure certification, and to ensure population immunity continues to be maintained,” Shuaib stated during an encounter.
He said combining the vaccination with other health services, such as check-ups and malaria treatment, also made it more acceptable.
“President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to vaccinate his own grandchildren against the virus helped to ease his many supporters’ minds,” Shuaib said.
Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of volunteers repeatedly vaccinated about 50 million Nigerian children aged 5 and below. The effort was driven by the Nigerian government, through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a joint effort between the WHO, Rotary International, the US Government, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Shuaib has always assured that Nigeria would soon achieve total eradication of polio. He explained how the Federal government has strongly put effective measures of surveillance in place to ensure children in remote areas are vaccinated to sustain routine eradication of polio.
The government also employed trained health workers and mobile team to reach out to remotest areas with geographical barriers in order to make vaccines accessible to children and guard against polio outbreak again in Nigeria.
“Measures have been put in place to ensure mobile teams and ad-hoc workers break the issue of geographical barriers which would ensure the success of the programme.”
Shuaib remarked that polio eradication is moving in the right direction although it is faced with several challenges such as getting access to hard areas due to their geographical inclination, also parents not allowing their children receive the routine immunisation. Public acceptance of the vaccine was a major contribution to the milestone.
Nigeria interrupted transmission of the wild polio virus and the WHO removed the country from the list of countries where the polio virus is endemic for the first time on September 25, 2015, but the resurgence of 2016 was a setback. Nigeria is one again, on the last lap to certification as a polio-free country. Surely, the last days of polio in Nigeria and Africa are at hand.