Insurgency, limited access and threat of polio outbreak

Although Nigeria has gone 18 months without new cases of polio, conflict areas are still under threat. Insurgency has limited access to some areas in the North-east, thereby hindering polio immunisation in those areas. AJUMA EDWINA OGIRI writes on the threat this poses in certifying Nigeria polio free by 2019.

In 2016, four new cases of Wild Polio Virus (WPV), were reported, three of which were in Borno state, at the heart of Nigeria’s conflict ridden northeast. As a result, many vulnerable children have been denied access to this cheap and simple preventative measure. However, experts have disclosed that the only way to gain access to these vulnerable children for polio immunisation is if the federal government gets rid of Boko Haram.

Expert Review Committee (ERC) meeting on polio eradication and routine immunization

At a recent Expert Review Committee (ERC) meeting on polio eradication and routine immunisation, health experts came out with strong recommendations on what Nigerians need to do to finish the job of polio eradication, as well as call for the approval of President Muhammadu Buhari’s request for $1 billion to fight insurgency in the North-east.

Chairman of the ERC, on polio eradication and routine immunisation in Nigeria, Onyewale Tomori, disclosed that the challenges of Polio eradication in Nigeria is because there are some parts of the country insurgency has made access to difficult for field workers to move in to vaccinate the children.

“If we get rid of Boko Haram, we will get access to children. In 18 months this country should be free of Polio. So, whatever the government needs to get done, they should forget politics and get this thing out of our country.

“If the same magic the federal government used to rescue the Dapchi girls, can be applied to getting access to these children, then polio will be eradicated in Nigeria,” Tomori explained.

Speaking in the same vain, the Executive Director of National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr. Faisal Shuaib, said the only reason Nigeria is still categorised as a polio endemic country is because we do not have access to some local government areas of Borno state.

“The outcome of the 35th expert review committee on polio eradication and routine immunisation came out with strong recommendations on what Nigerians need to do to finish the job of polio eradication. Simply put, success is access.

“We still have access problem in Abada, Marte, some areas of Bama, Damboa and Malam Fatori. These are the LGAs that have a larger population of over 160,000 under five children that we are trying to reach with life-saving vaccines.

“The FG approved N9.8 billion in 2016 to ensure we mount a robust outbreak response to stop the outbreak. All of that effort has now stemmed the outbreak since 2016. Unless we are able to reach these kids, then we cannot guarantee that polio transmission is not occurring in Nigeria, and there is always that threat that we may have a resurgence of the Wild Polio Virus.

“If we improve access, the frontline workers would vaccinate all kids and the global community will certify us polio free.
“It is only until we have access to these local government areas and other smaller wards in Borno state, then it is difficult for us to say categorically that polio has been eradicated,” Shuaib said.

Collaboration with Nigeria Army on polio eradication

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently called on the Nigeria Army to support the campaign against polio in the Northeast to ensure total eradication of the disease.

The Foundation’s Country Coordinator, Michael Galway, who said this in a statement said the collaboration with the military was necessary to facilitate conduct of immunisation in areas ravaged by Boko Haram insurgents, as the ongoing conflict with Boko Haram insurgents has made it difficult to immunise children in the affected communities.

“Polio virus is harbouring in areas where the insurgents’ operates; it is really difficult for immunisation workers to reach.
“I believe that it is only the Nigerian Army who can take the vaccine to those areas, most especially the liberated communities; with the use of mobile devices for effective coordination,” Galway said.

According to him, polio campaign was at its final stage and expressed optimism that such cooperation would assist to achieve the set goal.

In his response, the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General John Ochai, pledged support to ensure the success of the exercise in the region, and lauded the foundation over its health interventions despite the security challenges in the Northeast region.
“The Foundation is pursuing a worthy cause and we are ready to collaborate with you to achieve the goal.

“I can assure you that within the limit of our logistics, we would cover all the villages to achieve the desired result,” the brigade commander promised.

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