Tuesday December 10, 2019

Nigeria Marks Three Years without A New Case of Wild Polio Virus

Nigerian activist Ayuba Gufwan made sure his five children received polio vaccinations soon after they were born

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Nigeria, Wild, Polio Virus
FILE - A health worker tries to immunize a child during a vaccination campaign against polio at Hotoro-Kudu, Nassarawa district of Kano, in northwest Nigeria, April 22, 2017. VOA

Nigerian activist Ayuba Gufwan made sure his five children received polio vaccinations soon after they were born.

“I was determined to make sure none of my kids got the polio virus because I am a victim myself,” he said.

Gufwan came down with polio when he was 5 years old. Forced to crawl on the floor, he wasn’t able to attend school for years and faced ridicule.

These days, Gufwan is a popular advocate for the needs of polio survivors. His organization has supplied more than 26,000 locally produced wheelchairs for Nigerians living with the disease.

Nigeria, Wild, Polio Virus
FILE – Health workers walk from house to house in search of children to immunize during vaccination campaign against polio at Hotoro-Kudu, Nassarawa district of Kano, in northwest Nigeria, April 22, 2017. VOA

The government has been working with organizations such as UNICEF, Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to train health workers, procure the vaccine and spread awareness. This week, those efforts paid off. On Wednesday, Nigeria marked three years without a new case of wild polio virus.

It’s a status many say is a cause to celebrate, but Dr. Usman Adamu, who helps coordinate the Nigerian government polio eradication operations center, offered a more measured response.

“It’s not a celebration per se,” Adamu said. “It’s just marking the milestone, which is significant in our quest to achieve eradication and, subsequently, certification.”

The next step for Nigeria to be certified polio-free will be rigorous surveillance to see that there are no further cases of the wild polio virus. Nigeria could be declared polio-free as soon as mid-2020.

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Over the last few years, 400,000 health workers have been deployed across the country to administer the vaccine house to house and monitor and spread awareness about it. Since the early 2000s, the health teams have had to dispel misconceptions about the vaccine.

In the language of northern Nigeria, Hausa, polio is translated as shan innah. That conveys the idea that spirits are paralyzing a child’s legs, leaving the child with the telltale symptom of polio, floppy limbs.

Hostility toward the vaccine also came from respected Muslim leaders in Nigeria.

Gufwan, who was part of the awareness campaign, recalled some of the long-standing rumors spread in northern Nigeria, where Islam is the dominant religion.

Nigeria, Wild, Polio Virus
FILE – People stand amid the damage at a camp for displaced people after an attack by suspected members of the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency in Dalori, Nigeria, Nov. 1, 2018. VOA

‘Conspiracy theory’

“Some fundamentalist Muslims rejected the polio vaccine and came up with this conspiracy theory that the vaccine had been adulterated and that it had the potential to sterilize, particularly the girl child, and that it was a calculated attempt by the Western powers to reduce the Muslim population in Nigeria and other parts of the Islamic world,” he said.

The conspiracies led to the suspension of the vaccination campaign in certain parts of the country in 2003. And that led to new cases.

Suspicions intensified again among Nigerian Muslims after it was made known that the American CIA set up a fake polio vaccination drive to track down and kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.

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It took the help of traditional leaders to finally stop the rumors swirling around northern Nigeria.

Alhaji Samaila Muhammad Mera, the emir of Argungu in Nigeria’s Kebbi state, decided to use his role as a traditional ruler to educate his community.

“Anything you think you need to do to change perceptions, to change attitudes, you need to get a messenger that is trusted by the community that you target,” he said.

His state hasn’t had a new case of polio in five years, a drastic change from 15 cases in 2009.

Despite the successes, there are glaring problems. Boko Haram terrorism has made it nearly impossible to reach certain areas in the northeastern region, where an estimated 60,000 children have not been vaccinated.

In 2013, nine polio workers were killed by suspected Boko Haram gunmen.

Another challenge is open defecation. Polio is usually passed through feces. Nigeria has the second-highest open defecation rate in the world, just after India.

But Gufwan said he was hopeful that Nigeria would finally be free of polio. He said it was long overdue but better late than never. (VOA)

Next Story

Hundreds of School Children in Nigeria Join Global Fight for Climate Action

To achieve this, she started planting trees around her school and neighborhood, and recycles used plastic bags into shower cap

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School, Children, Nigeria
FILE - Nigerian youths gather to protest climate change and poor environmental practices, in Abuja, Nigeria, Sept. 20, 2019. VOA

Sixteen-year old Faithwins Iwuh — who is sometimes referred to as Nigeria’s Greta Thunberg — wants Nigeria to contribute to the global fight against climate change.

To achieve this, she started planting trees around her school and neighborhood, and recycles used plastic bags into shower caps.

Iwuh says she has been concerned about the effects of poor environmental practices for years.

“I started having this guilt anytime I see someone throw something out the window or I see people dispose wrongly,” she said. “I felt as if they were harming me and when I began to think about it, in a certain way they were harming me because it’s my future. If I do not take care of it now, I may not have a generation.”

School, Children, Nigeria
FILE – Protesters march to demand action on climate change, on the streets in Lagos, Nigeria, Sept. 20, 2019. VOA

An estimated 4 million students worldwide have taken part in the “Fridays for Future” movement, launched by Thunberg in Sweden in August 2018.

In recent months, hundreds of schoolchildren in NIgeria joined the movement. Two weeks ago, 300 students from 10 schools walked out of classes to protest in Abuja.

Fanny Nyalander, the Swedish ambassador to Nigeria, calls the action “inspiring.”

“I think it’s fantastic to see the young generation taking responsibilities and asking for climate action to be taken [seriously] — because it is their future and their future planet that is endangered,” she said. “So it is incredible and very inspiring to see that young people of Nigeria are standing up and asking for actions to be taken.”

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Iwuh, however, is concerned that awareness of environmental threats in Nigeria remains low.

“Not very many people know about this,” she said. “Only a handful know about this problem. I’m lucky to be one of the few that know about this and I’m trying my best to sell the idea to the world that it needs to save it from ending.”

Nigeria is the biggest importer of fossil fuel-powered generators in Africa, and therefore one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

Environmental experts like David Michael say climate change has serious consequences in Nigeria.

School, Children, Nigeria
Sixteen-year old Faithwins Iwuh — who is sometimes referred to as Nigeria’s Greta Thunberg — wants Nigeria to contribute to the global fight against climate change. Pixabay

“Unfortunately, we in Africa contribute very little to the course of climate change, less than 3 percent, but we’re the most vulnerable continent,” he said. “And, of course, in Nigeria here the effects are everywhere — the desertification up north, sea rise down south, in the middle belt, the crisis between farmers and herders.”

At a summit last December, Nigeria was one of 195 countries and territories that agreed to take steps to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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In real-world politics, that pledge is more likely to be fulfilled if more schoolchildren like Iwuh demand immediate action toward that goal. (VOA)