24 March 2016

Nigeria: Ending Polio Will Bring Wider Benefits

Nigeria's health minister, Professor Isaac Folorunso Adewole
guest column

Nigeria has seen a year and a half with no child paralysed by wild poliovirus. This is a remarkable achievement, taking the world one step closer to reaching eradication once and for all.

Yet interrupting the poliovirus in Africa is just one of the essential stepping stones on the pathway to securing a polio-free and broadly healthier future for all Africans.

We have more work ahead: immunization efforts must be sustained to build resilience against polio across the continent so that it cannot return. And African nations must plan now for how we can maximize the powerful infrastructure that has brought us to the brink of eradication to meet other health needs in the future.

There is no more sustainable contribution that can be made for the health of children than removing the threat of a disease like polio from the face of the world forever. The drive of the polio programme to reach every last child with the life-saving vaccines they need embodies the sustainable development goals' emphasis on equity in healthcare. With the work to end polio nearly finished, we have an opportunity to make the investments made in polio eradication go even further.

Vaccines are one of the greatest developments of our time. Yet one in five children are still without the life-saving vaccines they desperately need. African leaders have committed to providing universal access to vaccines by 2020 to address this worrying statistic.

This February, I joined leaders across Africa at the first ever Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Addis Ababa, to make good on our commitment and to strategize how, together, we can overcome some of the challenges ahead in reaching that fifth child.

In Nigeria, we will retain our commitment to eradicate polio right up until Africa is certified polio-free, hopefully in 2017. And at the conference, I advocated for leaders across Africa to use and build on the lessons we have learned through polio eradication to help us to get all routine vaccines to every child.

Over three decades, the polio eradication initiative has become an important part of health infrastructure in many African countries, incorporating a large, well-trained body of staff and volunteers; a surveillance system that is able to detect traces of many diseases even in remote places so that they can be rapidly responded to; strong delivery supply chains to bring vaccines to communities, previously unmapped and unreached by other health services; and robust accountability systems ensuring high quality programmes.

By planning now to use some of the most valuable aspects of the polio infrastructure for other health programmes, we can avoid the risk of losing the infrastructure. In Nigeria, we are already bringing together the government, partners in the polio eradication programme, donors and other health partners to leverage this wealth of knowledge and skills so that the investments made in polio pay dividends for health programmes long into the future.

We can already see how the benefits of the polio eradication programme are spreading to primary health care and routine immunization. Polio-funded personnel report spending more than half of their time supporting immunization goals other than polio - such as protecting communities from measles, whooping cough and tetanus.

In Nigeria, the polio programme's ability to build community trust, to trace and stop viruses and to end outbreaks were utilised to end the Ebola outbreak. It is now being used to stop Lassa fever. And health camps in remote areas of the north are helping to reach hard-to-reach communities with health services alongside polio vaccines.

One of the lessons that polio eradication taught us is the importance of political and traditional leadership, of engaging and learning from communities, of the need to earn and maintain trust, and of using data to drive action. This will help us to build a strong primary healthcare system, both in Nigeria and across Africa. The success of a healthcare system lies in primary healthcare - in the initial contact between an individual, family or community with the health care system, both in preventing and treating diseases.

With committed leadership, the sky is the limit when it comes to improving the health of our communities. In Nigeria, government ownership of the polio programme was an important factor in turning the tide on polio eradication efforts. I want to see the energy from this success used to create a robust platform on which to build the future - the health of children.

Professor Adewole is Nigeria's Minister of Health.

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