Nigeria’s slow waltz to polio-free nation

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Prof. Osagie Ehanire
Prof. Osagie Ehanire

For the second time in less than two decades, Nigeria has been declared polio-free. But the raging spate of insecurity nationwide and the resultant displacement of thousands of Nigerians may see the country sliding back to the league of polio-endemic countries

By Goddy Ikeh

THE World Health Organisation, WHO, on June 18, 2020, announced that Nigeria’s complete documentation for Wild Polio Virus-free status was accepted by the Africa Regional Certification Commission for polio eradication, ARCC.

For the ordinary Nigerian, this polio-free declaration means the country’s street will soon be free of persons crippled by this wild paralyzing virus, which has been increasing the number of persons living with disabilities in the country.

But the June 18 declaration of Nigeria as Wild Polio Virus-free nation did not receive the expected media attention due mainly to the fact that the news broke at a time the country was still struggling to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus, the worrisome insecurity situation nationwide and the increasing incidence of rapes and kidnapping in the country.

Another reason for low media attention to the declaration by the WHO was the fact that Nigeria could not sustain its two-year polio-free status since the country’s removal from the list of polio-endemic countries on September 25, 2015, by the WHO. That important milestone was received with cautious optimism by the global community that ending polio in Nigeria and the whole African region was achievable.

It will be recalled that by 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide. But with the concerted efforts by all levels of government, civil society organisations and tens of thousands of dedicated health workers, Nigeria was able to successfully stop polio in its tracks. According to available health records, more than 200,000 volunteers across the country repeatedly immunized more than 45 million children under the age of five years, to ensure that no child suffered from this paralyzing disease.

However, the last confirmed polio case, Isah Ahmadu, was reported from Sumaila local government area of Kano State with a 24 July, 2014 date of onset of paralysis. But in 2016, Nigeria experienced a setback in the fight against the Polio Virus when, after two years without a case, another outbreak occurred. With the discovery of this new case, Nigeria will at least stay one more year without a case of wild poliovirus in order for Nigeria and consequently the WHO African region to be certified polio-free.

However, the 32nd meeting of the Expert Review Committee, ERC, on Polio Eradication and Routine Immunization in Abuja in June 2016, recommended investing in strengthening routine immunization as the overarching priority of the government and partners in order to sustain the gains of the polio eradication programme and protect children against other vaccine-preventable diseases that no child is left vulnerable and without adequate immunization. And following the meeting with the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, President Muhammadu Buhari directed the Federal Ministries of Health, and Information and Culture to reinvigorate their strategies in concert with state governments in order to galvanize lasting support needed to sustain Nigeria’s polio-free status and ensure that Nigeria is finally certified polio-free by 2017. ‘‘We have not recorded any case of polio in the last two years but we should not be complacent,” Buhari said.

According to Buhari, the celebration of two years without a case of wild polio in Nigeria will continue to constitute a call to action to maintain momentum and ensure a polio-free Nigeria. This is imperative, with the entire African region drawing closer to possibly being certified polio-free in 2017. Ending polio in Nigeria will be a victory for the country and for children everywhere. But this declaration did not happen until June this year.

The news was therefore a welcome delight for President Buhari, who on Sunday, June 21, 2020 congratulated the entire country for the declaration by the WHO that the country is free from the Wild Polio Virus.

Buhari, who had nothing tangible internationally to celebrate recently except for the catalogue of protests and complaints of insecurity, rapes and kidnapping and the ravaging effects of Covid-19, declared that it was a historic achievement after the WHO declared Nigeria free of Wild Polio Virus. However, since then, Nigeria has not had a single case of Polio Virus, necessitating the, WHO, to declare the country polio-free.

Sharing the exciting news on Twitter, Buhari first congratulated Nigerians, then proceeded to thank the multiple partners that made the effort a success. “I congratulate all Nigerians as our country attains this historic status of being free from the Wild Polio Virus. So many partners, local and international, have contributed tirelessly to this feat — we are deeply grateful to each and every one of you.

“This achievement reflects the resilient spirit of Nigerians, in particular the strength and capacity of our health workers, who drew resources and support from multiple sectors to deal a final blow to the Wild Polio Virus.

“This achievement is not only one of the great successes of this generation of Nigerians, but also one of the obvious dividends of this administration, which is consistent with our progressive investment in the health of our people since 2015.

“This landmark achievement is also a promise kept to all Nigerians. As you will recall, in August 2015, barely three months after we assumed office, I promised Nigerians that: “My government shall provide the necessary resources and commitment required to strengthen the health system, routine immunization and ensure the country is certified Polio-free.

“When, in 2016, Nigeria suffered a major setback with the outbreak of the Wild Polio Virus in Borno State, after about 2 years without any case, I directed the immediate release of N9.8 billion to the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, NPHCDA, to contain the outbreak.

“Subsequently, we have been meeting all our financial obligations to bilateral and multilateral agreements, and have also provided the moral support and leadership required at all levels to motivate the men and women in the frontline of polio eradication in Nigeria.

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