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‘Nigeria under threat of vaccine-derived polio’

In this interview with selected media organisations, Joshua Hassan, the national chairman, Nigeria National Polio Clubs Committee, spoke on how to eradicate poliovirus. As a…

In this interview with selected media organisations, Joshua Hassan, the national chairman, Nigeria National Polio Clubs Committee, spoke on how to eradicate poliovirus.

As a country we have exited the polio epidemic; how has the journey been?

No case of polio must be found in the country for a minimum of three years. There are two partners we work with: World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Earlier on, the country was free for two and a half years. We were just planning for the celebration when the issue came out in 2017 in Borno. The state was locked up with no access. In 2017 we had to start another three years. So, by early 2020, Nigeria was declared free, but we didn’t get the certificate until August 2020.

By Nigeria declared free, Africa too became free of the wild poliovirus. For the countries battling with it now, when they get the last polio case, three years will be counted, and if no case is detected, they can be declared free.

How much has been spent on it?

Spending is very difficult to judge because everybody is spending. Rotary is spending. WHO is spending, UNICEF is spending. There are also people spending in cash, not kind – traditional rulers, churches and the mosques. We are spending for the good health of our children. This is what we do. We are not in competition with one another but on the same page trying to achieve the same thing.

Can we say we are no longer experiencing polio strains in Nigeria?

We are. There is what is called vaccine-derived polio virus. In areas where children were not adequately vaccinated or not vaccinated at all, vaccines proliferate. They go on the ground, and over time they mutate; and then, this thing is month to month. And the children can pick it up on the ground.

So we are still suffering from the vaccine.  As at now, there is one called AIT. They do not deal with states anymore. They say consequential geography. AIT is an acronym for Axis of Interacted Transmission States. The key states we are dealing with now are Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi and Katsina. They are challenged with AIT. As at now in Africa, Nigeria is leading. And in Nigeria, the northern part is on top, and in northern Nigeria, the above states are affected.

What is your committee doing to ensure that these four states are covered?

We are not doing it alone. We work with our partners. We act immediately when cases are reported. Every year, we go to the states and award the foot soldiers – those who do the work. This is just to encourage others to work.

What are the challenges in the region?

Insecurity and accessibility. In Kaduna and Zamafara, kidnappers abducted and killed some people. So banditry and kidnapping are affecting our operations. A team arrived last Sunday. They called themselves Outbreak Response Assessment Groups. They come from all the partners worldwide; about 37 of them. They have gone to all the states. They split themselves into states to see what is going on and see how they can help technically. That is why the national polio coordinator is in Katsina. So, it exists and that is what we are battling with.

Is insecurity affecting surveys or immunisation?

It is affecting both. How can you survey where there is insecurity? In some places, when I reach I cannot afford to go with my phone. If they see you with a telephone you are in trouble. But there is nothing we do not do to get every child reached and vaccinated.

How many countries have the wild poliovirus?

Only two countries have it – Afghanistan and Pakistan. I got weekly reports from WHO and Rotary International. On Friday they mentioned the total number of wild polio cases in 2023; that is from January to October – 11, three in Pakistan and six in Afghanistan. Last year, the same period they had 30 cases. There is improvement.

So there is no polio threat?

Yes, but there is the vaccine-derived polio

What is the solution?

Immunisation is the solution.

What has been the response of Nigerians?

Very great. We are lucky. Last month, we did one in the South-South and South East because one variant was found in Enugu. In Nigeria, you can’t get 100 per cent.

In some cases doctors reject vaccines. I went to Niger State two years ago and discovered that it was only the state that passed a law that any child that needs vaccination, medicine or anything should be given.

Based on the effort you have put in place, would you advocate that there should be a national law regarding that?

Any person in his normal mind would make good laws for children because they are the future of the country. We have suffered enough from diseases. Ignorance, bad lifestyle and beliefs in our cultures are affecting us. I have gone to churches where they said they did not believe in taking medicine. What I tell people is to do the best you can.

Is it possible to completely eradicate polio, considering insecurity mitigating against your operations?

Yes, it is, but only by vaccines.

Is there a targeted period for this to be achieved?

The target globally is 2026. We are hoping that by the end of December 2026, polio would be completely eradicated.

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