Nigeria has hit a major milestone. It is the latest country to rid itself of the scourge of polio, and the last country in Africa to do so.
Polio (poliomyelitis) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It mainly affects children. It can cause permanent paralysis and even death. Yet, no child needs to suffer from polio. There's no cure, but a safe and effective vaccine has been available since 1955.
Ellyn Ogden has worked on polio eradication for the past 17 years at USAID. She said national pride is what motivated the Nigerian government to push to end the transmission of the virus. Nigeria is a large country with more doctors per person than many of the poorer countries on the continent. It was the only country in Africa with ongoing cases of polio.
Ogden said that in the past few years a number of things came together. "You had a government committed to closing the gaps, you had partner support through the U.N. and other organizations, NGO’s, civil society and you had a whole group of other people willing to support it. You had religious leaders, traditional leaders all came together to solve the final problems and reach every child in Nigeria," she said.
But that wasn't always the case. Some traditional leaders opposed the vaccine because they thought it was harmful. Others said they needed more help in dealing with meningitis and other diseases. It took work in getting to know the people and their individual needs.
"For those people who wanted other services, we started to link our polio campaigns with health camps," Ogden said. "When we started to understand people who were truly afraid of the vaccine, no matter where they got their information from, whether it was accurate or not, we started to address parental concerns. We educated a broader range of people on the safety of the vaccine and how the vaccine actually works."
"As you get more people on board looking at what the problems are, answering their questions in an honest way, getting the trust of communities, answering some of their other priorities, you start to build the momentum that may turn around those last pockets that may have been refusing," she said.
Oyewali Tomori is president of the Nigerian Academy of Science and chair of the Expert Review Committee on Polio Eradication in Nigeria. He told VOA that in much of Africa, people are so focused on the struggle of daily living that they don't give much thought to their health. But he said when you educate people, and they see that there are alternatives to what they are doing, they change, especially when governments provide the right leadership.
Other challenges involved tracking nomadic people and making sure all of their children were immunized, as well as immunizing children during lulls of fighting in the northern region of the country.
Doing it involved the efforts of the Nigerian government, thousands of volunteers, and help from the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International and other organizations. Rotary started an immunization campaign against polio in 1979, and so far, has spent more than $1.4 billion dollars in the global effort to eradicate this disease.
Carol Pandek heads Rotary International's polio program. She told VOA via Skype that a year being polio-free is a milestone for Nigeria, but noted that it is not over. "Now they need to continue to do high quality immunization campaigns for the next several years," she said, as well as have a strong surveillance system so, should there be any new cases, they can be identified as soon as possible.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership that includes Rotary, reports that "most people infected with the polio virus have no signs of illness and are never aware they have been infected." They can spread the virus to thousands of others before someone falls ill and becomes paralyzed. That's why the World Health Organization considers a single confirmed case of polio paralysis to be a symptom of an epidemic.
Polio can exist in the environment for a while, but the virus is hosted only in humans. It is spread through person-to-person contact. Children need at least six doses of the oral polio vaccine in order to be protected against the disease for life. If Nigeria can stay polio free for two more years, the virus will no longer exist in Africa, and the World Health Organization can certify the entire African continent polio free.
Now the focus shifts to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the only two countries in the world that have active cases of polio. If these countries can immunize all of their children, the world will finally be polio free.