In the midst of the widespread national hysteria over the COVID-19 pandemic, news that Nigeria has finally achieved a polio-free status is indeed a silver lining that raises optimism about the ultimate victory of humanity in the inescapable battle against virulent viruses.
Conquest of the wild polio virus is particularly worth celebrating and giving thanks to God Almighty after decades of seemingly futile scientific and medical onslaughts world-wide to halt its irreversible crippling impact on the life prospects of children who were not vaccinated against it.
No review of the nation’s arduous battle against polio can be complete or objective without reference to the unfortunate events that led to several months of orchestrated mass phobia of the oral polio vaccine (OPV) and eventual suspension of the immunisation exercise in some northern states between 2003 and 2004.
It all started with a rumour linked to an alleged internet report that the polio vaccine contained anti-fertility agents that would render children impotent in their adulthood which gained traction from the involvement of some northern pharmacologists, pharmacists and clerics in pushing the narrative.
Even as federal health authorities initiated moves to contain the episode, political, religious and community leaders in the affected northern states were more inclined towards the pre-existing deep distrust of WHO and UNICEF health programmes, stemming from what was seen as overzealous persistence with polio vaccination of children, and not more prevalent and deadlier diseases like malaria and typhoid.
Professor Emeritus Umaru Shehu headed an expert panel set up by the then Minister of Health, Professor Eyitayo Lambo, to conduct efficacy and safety tests on the OPV in South Africa after which the minister affirmed in December 2003 that the vaccine was indeed safe.
But this was largely ignored as the crisis escalated and five northern states (Niger, Bauchi, Kano, Zamfara and Kaduna) halted polio immunisation, a development that raised regional and international concern over the alarming implications of reversing the difficult progress in getting rid of the wild polio virus in areas showing as much as 30% increase in prevalence of the disease that cripples unvaccinated children for life.
A fresh outbreak of polio was reported in Kano in October 2003, unleashing a new strain of the virus that spread rapidly to other parts of the country where there was no resistance or interruption to polio immunisation, but this sinister scenario met with hardened indifference to the doomed fate of paralysis facing thousands of voiceless vulnerable children as captured in the Kano State government’s January 2004 alibi, describing suspension of the immunisation as “…a lesser of two evils, to sacrifice two, three, four, five even ten children to polio than allow hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of girl-children likely to be rendered infertile.”
It didn’t matter that the “sacrifice” was carried out on the altar of unverified (scientific) information that the rest of the polio-fighting world confidently ignored! Or that some “enlightened” governors sneaked their children to OPV friendly states for vaccination while sacrificing others to the lesser evil!
It was a desperate situation requiring drastic remedial action but delicately driven by highly emotive matters of world politics and faith. For a while it seemed as if the differences were hopelessly irreconcilable.
To the best of my recollection, it took the momentous meeting of minds of two humanely motivated truce-seekers who were seized by the hapless plight of the voiceless vulnerable children “sacrificed” to a “lesser evil” of irreversible paralysis to optimise their spiritual and governance acumen respectively in facilitating a harmonised transparent process for the diverse disputants to come to terms with the rest of the world’s verifiable consensus on the efficacy and safety of the oral polio vaccine.
Thus, Alhaji Al-Mustapha Haruna Jokolo, 19th Emir of Gwandu, and Dr (Mrs) Ajoritsedere Josephine Awosika (MFR, mni), pioneer National Coordinator/Chief Executive of the National Programme on Immunisation (NPI) were destined to spearhead the formation of the historic Joint Federal Government/Jama’atu Nasril Islam All Inclusive Final Verification Committee On Safety Of The Oral Polio Vaccine which brought together a select team of traditional rulers, Islamic scholars, pharmacists and related medical science professionals, and the media that eventually and amicably resolved the seemingly intractable orchestrated stalemate over the safety of the OPV.
Remarkably, Emir Jokolo selflessly delegated HRH Shehu of Dikwa, Alhaji Kyari Ibn Umar Elkanemi of blessed memory to lead the team as Chairman but later became the chief endorser of the polio immunisation campaign as he featured on national television giving his own son drops of OPV.
The objective of the committee was to conduct a final all-inclusive verification exercise for the purpose of making an authoritative and conclusive declaration on the authenticity and safety of the OPV for the benefit and enlightenment of the general public.
It resolved to take samples of OPV earlier tested by Kano State Committee and from recently delivered OPV stock of the National Programme on Immunisation (NPI) Strategic Stores, from NAFDAC quarantine stock and from Sokoto, Zamfara and Kaduna States as collated by JNI.
These were to be taken for verification tests in South Africa, Indonesia and India by the committee.
At the end of the tests which lasted from February 8 – 20, 2004, the committee concluded that based on the test results, including information obtained during interactions held with scientists/professionals in countries visited, the OPV when used as recommended in the global polio eradication programme is safe.
It recommended that the federal government should ensure that there are public and private institutions with state-of-the-art equipment to be able to carry out such tests and should, as a matter of urgency, and at all costs encourage local production of vaccines.
It also enjoined all stakeholders to disseminate the findings of the committee through an aggressive public enlightenment campaign to enable the public to make informed decisions while relevant agencies should be further strengthened for research and quality assurance of vaccines.
It is worth pointing out that the success of the committee’s assignment was uniquely facilitated by the ever calm and collected but firm and focussed administrative dexterity of Dr Awosika, which effectively trickled down and across the dedicated and disciplined staff as well as the efficiently synergised departments of the National Programme on Immunization (NPI).
The entire organisation was marvellously motivated to achieving hitch-free, result-oriented outcome, without fear or favour having regard to the critical importance of its mandate to the healthy survival of Nigeria’s voiceless and vulnerable children as its future leaders.
I sincerely hope that this submission will fill some obvious gaps in our celebration of the declared eradication of polio in Nigeria as intended.
There are important matters arising from this memo that were then vital lessons but now forgotten as the virus of institutional amnesia remains endemic in our governance culture.
Sixteen years later, COVID-19 caught us napping over issues like ensuring that there are public and private institutions with state-of-the-art equipment for conducting necessary medical and scientific tests and the need to encourage local production of vaccines as a matter of urgency and at all costs.
Above all we must be on our guard in pre-empting the abrupt disruption of national interest policies and programmes which can be very difficult to salvage once the damage is done.
Abdulhamid Babatunde was Secretary of the Joint Federal Government/Jama’atu Nasril Islam All Inclusive Final Verification Committee On Safety Of The Oral Polio Vaccine