For every one of the almost 70 years I have lived in Nigeria, children – often by the hundreds – have become paralyzed from a virus that I’ve spent my professional life trying to stop. But this year may be different.
Since July 24, 2014, one year ago this week, Nigeria has not recorded a single case of wild poliovirus. This is the first time this has happened in history. If Nigeria is able to stay on track, it can be removed from the short list of countries that have never halted polio transmission.
Also this week, Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, is meeting with President Obama – his first official visit to the White House. I do not expect polio to be top of their agenda. Bringing peace and stability to the northeast and instituting economic and political reforms are clearly key priorities, but it would be a mistake to overlook what could be one of President Buhari’s greatest achievements: the eradication of polio in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s progress to date is encouraging, but the country must go an additional two years without a case to be certified polio-free along with the rest of the WHO African region. We will not make it that far without the steadfast commitment of both leaders. For Buhari, he must appoint a strong health minister and publicly commit to freeing Nigeria from polio by 2017. The U.S. has been a historically strong donor to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and until Africa is certified polio free and cases have also been stopped in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the only two countries that have had cases of wild polio this year – it is critical that Obama continues to lead the global effort.
Nigeria has shown the world that polio eradication is possible. With the help of seven Emergency Operations Centres throughout the country, the government and partners have been able to respond in real-time to polio outbreaks and coordinate vaccination campaigns. At the local level, health workers, often drawn from the communities they serve, have partnered with polio survivors and religious leaders to help parents understand the importance of the vaccine for their children.
We have also learned from others. Nigeria built on India’s polio eradication success by improving immunization microplans, where local leaders and health workers walk through their communities and map each house so that vaccinators know where to go and no child is missed. In conflict zones, health workers have learned to be nimble and take advantage of short periods of calm to vaccinate children.
But I hope that the most important lesson we’ve learned is not to be complacent. Nigeria is the only country in Africa that has never stopped polio. We have been close before to ridding our country of the deadly virus, but we let our guard down and the disease came roaring back, re-infecting dozens of other African countries.
Yet, despite all the lessons we’ve learned, the end of polio will not come quietly. Insecurity in the northeast part of the country has left many settlements in the area inaccessible to health workers. A recent case of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) – a very rare form of the virus mutated from the oral polio vaccine that emerges in under-immunized populations – shows that polio vaccination rates in Nigeria are still not high enough.
Buhari has the historic opportunity to end polio forever on his watch, but only if he dedicates the necessary resources to improve campaign quality, intensify surveillance measures, and reach children in all parts of the country – particularly in insecure areas in the northeast. Until we reach every child, all children remain at risk.
Freeing my country of polio will have benefits beyond just taking Nigeria’s name off that short, inglorious list. The polio program has provided a framework for reaching children all over the country with life-saving vaccines and critical health services. It also taught us how to effectively respond to disease outbreaks, as we did when Ebola came calling.
While it’s critical that we don’t lose focus on eradication, we must also increase investment in our often fragile health system. One in eight Nigerian children still die before reaching their fifth birthday – the vast majority from preventable diseases – making Nigeria one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a child. A strong and resilient Nigeria rests on building an effective health system that delivers for its citizens, and for its children.
I dream that I will live the last years of my life in Nigeria – in a country where no child becomes paralyzed by polio, or dies from vaccine preventable diseases. So, to Buhari and our friend to the West, let us commit, once again and finally, to rid Nigeria and Africa of polio. Our children, our country and our continent depend on it.
Tomori is president of the Nigerian Academy of Science.