DR. Christopher Elias is an optimist. If anyone has convinction that polio will be eradicated from Nigeria in the not-too distant future, it is he. His optimisim is not just because he is President of Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but more because he knows exactly what it would take to end the reign of polio in Nigeria.
An expert in health and medicine, Elias knows the disease, polio, as much as he knows the country, Nigeria. "Polio is highly preventable and Nigeria has what it takes to eradicate it," he declared in an interview with Vanguard.
Speaking from New York, Wednesday last week just before the historic "High Level" meeting hosted by the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon to engage a global movement in support of polio eradication, Elias declared that one of the reasons polio would be soon eradicated form Nigeria was because the country was benefitting from what he described as a strong political commitment.
"If you take a look at the map of polio cases this year, you have to be an optimist because the map looks better than before. We see cases really only in the three countries that have not yet interrupted transmission, but there are also important progresses if you look carefully."
Observing that polio is a vaccine preventable disease, he argued that if the Oral Polio Vaccine can get to the children, the disease would go away.
"I think we have seen significant progress in Nigeria. There is a still some way to go, because the immunisation progress is still low, particularly in the most vulnerable LGAs, but I'm optimistic that if we continue to see the strong leadership of Dr. Muhammed Ali Pate and his team, the Governors Forum and President Jonathan, we are going to achieve success in Nigeria before very long."
Weak links in the Nigerian eradication chain, he noted, include a handful of Local Government Areas where immunisation coverage rates are low and children are vulnerable.
Focus on weak spots
"So we need to be focusing on these weak spots and that is the purpose of the emergency action plan put in place by Dr. Pate and other partners. The National Primary Health Care Development Agency, NPHCDA, is up to task of the tracking to get vaccinators to immunise every child. Progress has increased in this direction. We need to keep up that work."
Expressing optimism that polio will be eradicated in Nigeria in the not too distant future, Elias said: "We have a Global polio Eradication Initiative in conjunction with the leadership of health officials in Nigeria and other countries that recently interrupted transmission of polio.
"They are developing a 5-year plan that will be presented to the World Health Organisation soon. This is a plan that we have had opportunity to have some review, and it gives me great confidence that we will be able to harness the political and financial resources necessary to eradicate polio in the near future."
Emergency of polio eradication
On the complimentary role of the high-level UN meeting to a directive of the World Health Assembly, WHA, he said the 193 member-states of the UN called for an emergency to polio eradication in the world.
"This event hosted by the UN Secretary General with Bill Gates, the Nigerian leader and other political leaders, is a sign that we are able to get the attention of many of the world's high level leaders to say this is an important job we take seriously on what the WHA has charged the global community to do and we must ensure that we get it done. It will begin the process of securing the leadership financial resources and operational competence of the world in elimination the polio," he declared.
Why polio must be eradicated
"The world has an unprecedented opportunity to finish the job. If we can make the necessary leadership accountable and harness resources to eradicate polio within the next few years, we will be saving the world US$40-50 billion over the next 25 years and eliminate what has been, for several centuries, a devastating problem.
"Right now, we are down to just 200 cases globally, but if we were to stop the eradication efforts for polio, we could be looking at 200, 000 new cases a year. We are close to the finish. What is important to recognise is that particularly in this final stage in Nigeria, we are not just eliminating polio, we are building a system to deliver vaccines for other vaccine preventable diseases that are common causes of morbidity and mortality for children.
"So the polio eradication will leave the world with a better surveillance system to understand the patterns of vaccine preventable disorders and better immunisation and case development systems.
Lessons from India's success
India's success is one of the most important successes for polio eradication. Years ago, many thought India would be the last to eradicate polio, yet India succeeded despite high number of cases, population and other problems. We have been studying the key element of the success in India and we found it has innovation.
Nigeria has benefitted from having 15 of the surveillance medical officers from India, who were in the final eradication process. They came to Nigeria and are working with the NHPCDA in transferring some of those lessons to the operational capability of the Nigerian resource.
"One complete example is that in the last few months, the Nigerian programme has restructured the vaccinator team using smaller teams that visit fewer households and also having more teams. This is a model that worked quite well towards the eradication success in India.
We are very much in support of the transfer the special lessons learned in India into the operational plans of the emergency options in Nigeria."