On July 25, Nigeria celebrated a milestone in our country’s health sector: an entire year without any reported case of polio. The World Health Organisation defines poliomyelitis (polio) as a highly infectious viral disease, which mainly affects young children. It is caused by a virus. It mainly affects children. The initial symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and pain in the limbs. The virus multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system causing paralysis. It can also cause death. The virus is usually transmitted by person-to-person contact, spread mainly through the faecal-oral route or via contaminated water or food.
Yet, no child needs to suffer from polio. There’s no cure, but a safe and effective vaccine has been available since 1955. Thanks to a cheap and effective vaccine, administered by two drops into a child’s mouth, Nigeria is now on the path to fully eradicating the disease and being certified as polio free by 2017.
Naturally, this news has led to an outpouring of euphoria. The government and people of Nigeria have been elated to know that our country, which together with Pakistan and Afghanistan, were the only remaining places in the world where the polio virus was to be found, has now left that unflattering league behind.
In addition, with the spate of terrorist attacks that have taken place in some parts of northern Nigeria over the past years, it is encouraging that this good news is also emanating from the same region, the north of Nigeria having recorded the most cases of polio over the decades. However, we must look beyond the celebrations to ensure that the victory is not temporary, that Nigeria does indeed remain polio free.
A few years ago in Pakistan, the country saw a high rise in the number of polio cases. Three-quarters of those afflicted were in conflict-ridden areas. Many children in those parts of the country missed their polio vaccinations as a result of the instability caused by insecurity. Therefore, the success of the war on terror is vital to Nigeria’s dream of being certified completely polio-free by 2017.
In addition, there were sad cases in Nigeria’s past where children were prevented from receiving the free polio vaccine, owing to rumours about its side effects. Some believed that the vaccination was an attempt by Western forces to sterilise Muslims. Government and health workers must collaborate with traditional and religious leaders at the grassroots level to prevent a reoccurrence of this.
Education is also key. It is more difficult for fables to take root and fester among a population who have been taught in schools how the human body functions and how the world works.
The government of Nigeria, philanthropists and other well-meaning citizens must improve investment in education. We must all join hands to coordinate efforts that improve access to education – especially for the poor whose circumstances and situations ultimately affect the rest of us, and also for the girl child who will inevitably grow up to become the mother of tomorrow.
Improving access to education will help tame not just polio, but other persistent problems, including poverty and the radicalisation that leads to terrorism and insecurity.
President Muhammadu Buhari declared on Saturday, 25th of July in Abuja that his administration will do all within its powers to ensure that no Nigerian child is ever infected with polio again. I commend that passion. Every Nigerian must now support the government in every way we can. We defeated Ebola and we will soon defeat polio. There is no limit to what more we can accomplish as a nation once we join hands together to make it happen. Yes, the good news is that we may have won the battle to kick out polio, but the war to make Nigeria completely free from the debilitating scourge of the disease in the next two years is ours to win.
However, my prayers are with the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as they continue their efforts to protect their citizens from polio and eradicate the disease from their midst. I remain confident that, come 2017, Nigeria will be declared a polio free country, and the disease finally banished from the continent of Africa.
Atiku Abubakar was Vice President of Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999-2007).