By Philemon Doro Adjekuko
It has been about a year now since Nigeria recorded any case of polio. For over 17 years, the disease was on a rampage, especially in the northern part of the country. The country accounted for about 50% of global and 80% of African polio cases. Nigeria was the face of the disease.
According to one medical source, “polio is a viral illness that begins with flu-like symptoms of fever, headache, vomiting and/or diarrhoea and muscle aching. The virus enters the body through the stomach and intestines. In some people the virus can enter into the central nervous system and produce damage to motor nerve cells, whose function is to instruct muscles to move.”
Concerned about the inability of national governments to tackle the rapid advance of the disease, the World Health Organisation (WHO) back in 1988 launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) with the goal of eradicating the disease by the year 2000. By 1996, the WHO realised that the eradication initiative was not going as planned in terms of reducing the outbreak and spread of the disease. A massive booster immunisation initiative Kick Polio Out of Africa was launched. The initiative was indeed ground breaking as vaccination was taken to the doorsteps of millions of children across the world, especially in vulnerable regions. Nigeria was, again, the poster child of the campaign.
According to Maryam Yahya, an anthropological researcher, everything was going well until July 2003, when the three northern states of Kano, Zamfara State and Kaduna State halted the campaign on the grounds that “the vaccines were deliberately contaminated with anti-fertility agents and the HIV virus”. There were also some cultural and political angles to the boycott.
The botched Trovan trial on 200 children against meningitis by Pfizer in 1996 — which led to the death of at least five of them — provided another strong reason for the popularity of the call to boycott the polio immunisation. The boycott was costly in both economic and human terms as more northern states joined. Most of those who managed to survive polio attacks became severely and irreversibly deformed.
That was the state of things when then-governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi took over as the chairman of the Governor’s Forum in May 2011. Health was on top of Amaechi’s mind, and he had a robust plan for primary, secondary and tertiary levels of the health sector in Rivers State. But he was greatly disturbed by the heavy toll polio was inflicting on the country, especially in the north.
Back in May 2014, when I asked Asishana Okauru, DG of the Governors’ Forum, about how Amaechi went about the fight against polio, he was practically speechless. When he eventually got his voice back, he said he had never seen anything like it.
“Ameachi made polio a permanent part of our agenda for at least 18 months. At every single meeting it was discussed. So when you see that polio is being well managed today it is because of his effort. And I can tell you that it is that same spirit that helped the country with the outbreak of Ebola. So with that state of mind every time there is a challenge that should be handled at the sub-national level with a common governance template, you see all of them (the governors) moving in the same direction because of that mentality. So, when you have something consistently on your agenda for eighteen months, there is just no way that you would not make progress.”
Okauru said that each of the states set up an emergency centre that was linked to a special desk managed by public health expert Dr Zikrullah Giwa at the Forum’s office in Abuja. At each meeting, Dr Giwa would brief the governors on the state of affairs in the crisis states. Any state that was not doing well with the immunisation initiative was put on the spot for an explanation. The governors all bought into the project — so much so that they never travelled to the Forum’s meetings without establishing their current “status” from their commissioners of health.
As Okauru said above, it was that collegiate and governance template approach that later became helpful during the deadly Ebola outbreak in mid-2014. Incidentally, Rivers State was the only state outside Lagos that was hit by Ebola. The collaborative efforts of the two states, as well as the government, helped Nigeria tremendously in containing the spread of the fearsome disease.
The success recorded in the immunisation programme following Amaechi’s drive at the Forum has paid off handsomely. Having been free of a fresh case of polio in almost a year, Nigeria is currently waiting to be delisted from the list of polio endemic countries by end of August this year. If the status quo remains until 2017, the country will be then be declared polio free. If that happens, it will be a major relief to Africa and the rest of the world.
Hopefully, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi will be remembered for his tireless effort and contribution in making Nigeria polio free.
Philemon Doro Adjekuko is a development economist and media consultant based in Abuja.