Victims Spearhead Polio Vaccination Campaign in Nigeria

by VR Sreeraman on Aug 26 2007 11:12 AM

Victims Spearhead Polio Vaccination Campaign in Nigeria
Resting his withered legs on his four-wheeler motorbike, polio victim Aminu Ahmed spoke persuasively to a woman breastfeeding her one-year-old daughter in front of the family's mud house.
After listening for 10 minutes, the reluctant mother let visiting health workers immunise her child against poliomyelitis.

"Some parents still need some persuasion to allow their children to receive the polio drops as they still harbour fears about the safety of the vaccine," said Ahmed, 47.

He and fellow victims have joined the fight to stamp out the crippling virus from Nigeria's northern Kano state, which was the epicentre of an outbreak that fanned out across the region. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), it not only re-infected polio-free areas in Nigeria but spread to at least eight polio-free countries in central and west Africa.

The problem started in 2003 when authorities in Kano, Nigeria's most populous state, banned polio immunisation for 13 months following pressure from radical Islamic clerics and some Muslim doctors.

Opponents claimed the vaccine was laced with substances that could render girls infertile as part of a US-led Western plot to depopulate Africa.

The state eventually resumed the vaccinations in September 2004 after clinical tests in and outside the country proved the vaccine safe. But the damage was done.

Nigeria has since been frantically struggling to stamp out the highly infectious disease that mainly hits children and today, thanks to global eradication efforts, remains endemic in only four countries -- Afghanistan, India and Pakistan as well as Nigeria.

In Kano, health workers and volunteers like Ahmed have this year alone carried out five immunisation campaigns, each lasting four days, aiming to reach a total of 3.5 million children under five.

"We have realised the need to join in the fight against polio because as victims we appreciate its harm more than anyone else," said Ahmed, who contracted the disease at age three and has been living with withered legs for as long as he can remember.

"Since seeing is believing, unwilling parents will easily be convinced if we victims speak to them," he said, helping a health worker in the city's poor Kaura-Goje neighbourhood.

For the last year, Ahmed's victims' association has accompanied vaccination teams targeting areas where parents were known to be reticent, like Kaura-Goje which was notorious for chasing away vaccinators.

And the strategy seems to be yielding results. Most Kaura-Goje parents now allow the health workers -- generally young veiled women bearing oral polio vaccine kits door-to-door -- to apply the crucial drops on their children's tongues.

"I started giving polio drops to my child nine months ago when two polio victims came with the vaccinators," said 34-year-old Hamisu Musa said after his two-year old daughter received the drops. "They told me that my child could end up like them if I did not immunise him against polio and I became scared of that possibility."

Ahmed said such acceptance would have been unthinkable two years ago. "Our presence reminds parents that their children stand the risk of permanent deformity just like us if they fail to immunise."

Kano state immunisation coordinator Abdurrahman Yakubu, meanwhile, said officials have noticed "a drastic fall in the number of polio cases in the last year since the polio victims joined us in the struggle."

"For the past one year we have not recorded one single case of poliovirus type I and II, which are the most dangerous, and we hope to get rid of the type III in the near future with more and more participation of the polio victims."

Though Nigeria has not reached its goal of eradication, the country has recorded only 159 cases of polio so far in 2007 against 687 cases in 2006, according to GPEI.

Worldwide, the disease has decreased by more than 99 percent since the GPEI was launched in 1988, dropping from 350,000 to fewer than 2,000 new cases in 2006, according to WHO.


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