Wednesday last week marked three years since Nigeria's last documented case of polio, which was also the last case recorded in Africa. This means the African continent is set to be certified free of the virus by the World Health Organization, WHO. "This is a dramatic change from 2012 when the country accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide, with 223 victims," WHO said. Nigeria is the last country in Africa to have witnessed a case of polio in Borno State. Outside of Nigeria, the last case on the African continent was in Somalia's Puntland region in 2014.
According to WHO, polio incidence globally been reduced by 99 percent since 1988 when more than 350,000 children were paralyzed annually in 125 countries. If Nigeria is ultimately declared polio-free, the virus shall remain in only two countries of the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2018, there were 33 polio cases confined to just these two countries.
Head of Nigeria's National Primary Health Care Development Agency [NPHCDA] Dr Faisal Shuaib said Nigeria has reached a "historic milestone," adding that it would take several months before the country can officially be labelled polio-free. He said the first criteria, which is a report of no case for three years, has been achieved.
In the past few years, health workers and volunteers repeatedly vaccinated about 50 million Nigerian children under the age of five. The effort was driven by the Federal Government through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a joint effort between WHO, Rotary International, the US Government, UNICEF and Bill & Millender Gates Foundation. The programme also received funding from the Aliko Dangote Foundation.
Many volunteers risked their lives in some instances to vaccinate 0-5-year-old children in some crisis-ridden parts of Nigeria. At some point, insecurity in the North East hindered the polio vaccination programme. However, the successes achieved in the fight against Boko Haram insurgents facilitated this milestone achievement of no-new-case.
This is not just a milestone for Nigeria but also for the rest of Africa. It would be one remarkably indelible public health achievement and an outstanding legacy to be left by today's leaders for future generations. It is worthwhile to appreciate and commend the role played by the Sultan of Sokoto and President-General of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar as well as other traditional rulers under the auspices of Jama'atu Nasril Islam (JNI) whose institutional persuasion convinced parents, especially in the northern states, to allow their children and wards receive the once-rejected and ostracised polio vaccine.
Polio, or poliomyelitis, mainly affects children under the age of five. It is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system and could cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. Initial symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness of the neck and pain in the limbs. Health experts say one in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis.
While we urge government to continue to engage religious and traditional rulers in all its health-related initiatives by tasking them with the role of enlightening their subjects on government programmes, we equally encourage it to support indigenous pharmaceutical institutions and industries to produce polio vaccines locally in Nigeria. Besides economic benefits, such would liberate the country from Nigeria's overdependence on foreign donor agencies and individuals.
Now that Nigeria is set to launch Africa into the world of polio-free continents, authorities at Nigeria's NPHCDA must work to ensure that there is a robust surveillance system in the country to be certain that no new cases of the wild polio virus are recorded. Anything could happen between now and the time WHO would certify Nigeria as polio-free because new babies are being born every day and they would require to be vaccinated against polio. As a country with huge and complex challenges, we cannot afford to relax only to destroy this hard-earned achievement.