By Joseph Erunke
For years, Polio, a viral disease that is transmitted from person to person, mainly through a faecal-oral route or, less frequently, through contaminated water or food, and multiplies inside the intestines, reigned supreme in Nigeria.
While there is no cure for polio, the disease can be prevented through administration of a simple and effective vaccine.
Since 1988 when the World Health Assembly declared the virus a disease of international concern that must be eradicated by year 2000, successive administrations put every effort in place to rapidly boost immunity levels in children and protect them from polio paralysis.
As at 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide, according WHO. And to contend the situation, more than 200,000 volunteers across the country repeatedly immunized more than 45 million children under the age of 5, to ensure that no child would suffer from this paralysing disease.
Over the years, efforts to eradicate the disease were met with various obstacles ranging from parents, who did not believe that the disease existed and refused to submit their children to be immunised to some community and religious leaders who often give misleading information about the virus.
The unsuccessful trial by Pfizer, a pharmaceutical giant, who carried out unauthorised trial of a polio vaccine in Kano, which led to the deaths of a number of children made the situation worse. Besides, the insurgency in the North East led to the killing of many health workers engaged in administering polio vaccine. In the end, the region became the major block to attaining polio-free status for the country.
Fears that efforts to eradicate the scourge would be impossible, given some religious indifference to it were high.
However, in all these, there was the determination of successive governments at all levels, including development partners, non-governmental organisations, religious and traditional rulers to ensure success in the fight against the disease.
Following this, Nigerians woke up on June 18, 2020, to hear the cheerful news of the declaration of their country a polio-free one by the WHO. Yes, on this day, the organisation announced that polio is no longer endemic in Nigeria, leaving the devastating disease endemic in only two countries and bringing the world one major step closer to achieving this goal of ending polio for good.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, GPEI, the public-private partnership leading the effort to eradicate polio on the planet, called the development a ‘’historic achievement’’ in global health.
The country’s attainment of polio-free status, is no doubt, the painstaking efforts of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, NPHCDA, under its Executive Director, Dr Faisal Shuaib, who ensured the agency’s commitment to sustain the population’s immunity against wild polio virus and other vaccine-preventable diseases through strengthened routine immunisation programmes.
Dr Faisal had expressed fear prior to the country’s certification as he appealed to parents and caregivers to visit health facilities and access such services.
Faisal’s sustained collaboration with all partners, local and international, for relentless efforts in ensuring the clean health bill, put the country at its current polio-free status.
This achievement reflects the resilient spirit of Nigerians, particularly the capacity of the hardworking men and women in the health industry, who drew resources and support from multiple sectors to deal a final blow to the deadly virus.
In view of this positive development, Nigeria awaits its final certification expected next week from the world’s health body. The independent Africa Regional Certification Commission, responsible for certifying the eradication of wild poliovirus in the World Health Organisation African Region, will make its final decision about the region’s wild poliovirus status this August.
But just as it prepares for that, there are fears that the country’s gain in this respect could be upturned given that its certification as a Polio-free country also came at a time when it is battling with the scourge of COVID-19.
This is because following the COVID-19 pandemic, mass immunizations across the region have been postponed until further notice, which hinders outbreak response activities. This is even as the polio eradication programme in the African Region, in addition to its support to the COVID-19 response, is working with countries to ensure the continuity of essential disease surveillance activities as well as planning the resumption of immunization and outbreak response in compliance with the guidance to stop COVID-19 transmission.
The federal governments focus is now expected to shift to sustaining Nigeria’s new status as a Wild Polio free nation, with necessary investments that will strengthen the primary healthcare system.