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Vaccine Apathy in Nigeria Fuels Yellow Fever Outbreak

FILE - A bottle containing yellow fever vaccine.

More than 170 people have died from yellow fever outbreaks in Nigeria this year, despite vaccines being available since 2004. A preference among some Nigerians for traditional, herbal medicine is part of the problem. But experts said apathy to vaccines in rural areas is the biggest challenge.

Nigerian car washer Jonathan Sale caught yellow fever from mosquito bites while in secondary school, 23 years ago, before a vaccine was available to treat the viral disease.

“When I had that sickness, my lips turned yellow, and my tongue, my eyeball became yellowish. And I was vomiting yellow, yellow, yellow," Sale said. "I was thinking I was going to die, and God saved me. I went to the hospital and they gave me drips and some drugs.”

Nigeria has had the yellow fever vaccine since 2004 and offers it free for children.

But since 2017, outbreaks of yellow fever have left scores dead and many others suffering.

Dr. Rilwanu Mohammed, the executive chairman of the Bauchi State Primary Health Care Development Agency, said many parents fail to get their children vaccinated.

“We now did a small survey and found out that out of the people we sampled, half had not taken the vaccination," Rilwanu Mohammed said. "The children sampled were under the age of five, and half had not taken the vaccination.”

Traditional medicine

While apathy among parents is the main challenge to vaccines, some Nigerians also opt for traditional medicine instead, like Ahmadu Mohammad, who claims he was cured from yellow fever by visiting the community traditional healer.

Mohammad said that people use with herbal medicine and don’t often go to a hospital. He said the treatment is a syringe placed in fire, and once the needle turns red, the herbal doctor prays on the syringe before piercing it into the chest. He said that is the gift God has given the herbal doctor.

Aisha Rufai is an immunologist in the city of Jos. He believes more Nigerians are willing to get the yellow fever vaccine, which lasts a lifetime.

“There is great awareness now, almost everybody is aware of immunization now, so that of traditional, you’ll find out that it is a very minute number of people that go for traditional,” Rufai said.

The Nigerian federal government plans to carry out a massive yellow fever immunization campaign across five high-risk yellow fever states starting mid-January.