There is a sliver lining for Nigeria in the dark cloud of the covid-19 pandemic. The good news has come from the World Health Organization (WHO). It announced Tuesday that polio is no longer endemic in Nigeria. This leaves 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 outstanding commitment and efforts that got Nigeria off the endemic list must continue, to keep Africa polio-free,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan. “We must now support the efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan so they soon join the polio-free world.”
Since 1988, the incidence of polio has been reduced by more than 99 percent, according to WHO. At the time, more than 350,000 children were paralysed every year, in more than 125 endemic countries. Today, two countries remain which have never stopped endemic transmission of polio: Pakistan and Afghanistan, where there have been in 2015, 41 cases reported (32 in Pakistan, 9 in Afghanistan).
In its announcement, WHO said that Nigeria has made remarkable progress against polio, but continued vigilance is needed to protect these gains and ensure that polio does not return. Nigeria has not reported a case of wild polio virus since 24 July 2014, and all laboratory data has confirmed that a full 12 months have passed without any new cases.
Immunization and surveillance activities must continue to rapidly detect a potential re-introduction or re-emergence of the virus, the agency said, explaining that only after three years have passed without a case of wild polio virus on the African continent will an official ‘’certification’’ of polio eradication be conducted at the regional level in Africa.
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. As recently as 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide, according to WHO. 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,” the agency said.
Nigeria is the last country in Africa to have reported a case of wild polio – in Borno state in the north-east, and the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurrection, in 2016. At the time it was a frustrating set-back as the country had made huge progress and had gone two years without any cases being identified. Conflict with the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has made parts of Nigeria particularly difficult to reach, Borno state in particular. More than two million people have been displaced by the fighting. Frontline workers, 95% of whom were women, managed to navigate areas of conflict like Lake Chad by boat and deliver vaccines to remote communities.
Another challenge was widespread rumours and misinformation about the vaccine. They also slowed down immunisation efforts. Im 2003, Kano and a number of other northern states suspended immunisations following reports by religious leaders that the vaccine was contaminated with an anti-fertility agent as part of an American plot to make women infertile. Laboratory tests by Nigerian scientists dismissed the accusations.
Vaccine campaigns resumed the following year, but the rumours persisted. In 2013 nine female polio vaccinators were killed in two shootings thought to be carried out by Boko Haram at health centres in Kano. It has taken decades to achieve eradication and overcome suspicion around the vaccine. The stories of survivors, support from traditional and religious leaders and determination of health workers have also helped.
This is good news in more than one sense. First, it has removed the stigma that had stuck to Nigeria as the remaining polio endemic nation in Africa. Secondly, that this success story has received wide mention in western news media indicates the triumph of development journalism, even in frontiers that have hung onto the age old notion that “bad news is good news”. It was a notion that led them to report Africa only as a continent where armed conflict, poverty and disease kill millions of people. Bravo, Africa and Nigeria. There must be no relapse into complacency. Keep up the struggle.