Nigeria marked its first full year with no new polio cases on Friday, thanks to an inoculation campaign which carried on despite continuing violence in the north and other major challenges for public health workers.
The growing anti-vaccine movement in the U.S. is vocal, but it’s nothing compared to what Nigerian public health workers have faced. The violent Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, which held much of northeastern Nigeria for several months, killed 9 vaccinators in Kano State in February 2013. It was an unsurprising act for a group whose name means “Western education is a sin” in Hausa; of course Boko Haram is anti-vaccine. Nigerian public health workers were undeterred, however.
Elsewhere in the country, rumors had spread that the vaccination campaign was a plot to sterilize Muslims. “We thought we could overcome it with global pressure and scientific information,” Oyewale Tomori, chairman of Nigerian government’s Expert Review Committee on Polio Eradication, told the Associated Press. “It didn’t work,” he said, so public health workers tried a different approach, seeking the support of religious leaders, community leaders, and women’s groups, who are more trusted sources of information than the national government or foreign doctors. It worked, and efforts to boost vaccination rates for other diseases here in the U.S. could take a practical lesson from that approach.
The virus that causes polio is endemic to the northern region of the country. So is Boko Haram, which makes the success of the vaccination campaign even more remarkable. Joint military operations by the armed forces of Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon ousted Boko Haram from most of northern Nigeria earlier this year, but the group maintains a solid foothold in Borno State. In fact, it killed 25 people in a raid on neighboring Adamawa State on Friday — ironically the same day that Nigeria marked its first full year free of polio.
And there are concerns that polio may still regain a foothold in Nigeria as well, so the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking a cautious approach. The country has been on the verge of eradicating polio before, in 2007 and 2011, and then allowed the disease to regain ground by diverting vaccination funds to political campaigns instead. Despite the recent unrest, things are looking more optimistic this year; earlier in 2015, the Nigerian government committed $80 million to its anti-polio campaign, its largest investment so far.
Nigeria’s last case of polio was a child in a northern state, reported on July 24, 2014. WHO won’t formally remove Nigeria from its list of polio-endemic countries until 2017, and then only if the country continues to have no new cases of the disease. Other than Nigeria, only Pakistan, which reported 28 new cases in the past year, and Afghanistan, which reported 5 new cases, still remain on the list.
That’s a massive improvement in a little under 30 years. In 1988, when WHO launched its Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the virus paralyzed 1,000 children every day worldwide. It was endemic in 125 countries.
Image: Getty Images.