22nd April, 2017. Lagos, Nigeria. Tiwa Savage, a Nigerian pop star and mother, joined Dr Tunji Funsho, Chair of Rotary's National PolioPlus Committee for Nigeria, to participate in a National Immunization exercise in Lagos, Nigeria on 22 April 2017. Savage recently joined the End Polio Now campaign as a Polio Ambassador.
22nd April, 2017. Lagos, Nigeria. Tiwa Savage, a Nigerian pop star and mother, joined Dr Tunji Funsho, Chair of Rotary's National PolioPlus Committee for Nigeria, to participate in a National Immunization exercise in Lagos, Nigeria on 22 April 2017. Savage recently joined the End Polio Now campaign as a Polio Ambassador.

Nigeria was on August 25 2020 formally certified free of Wild Polio Virus by the World Health Organisation, WHO. It was part of the larger certification of the Wild Polio Virus eradication in the African region. This feat came after no Wild Polio Virus case was recorded in the region since 2016.This is a virus that once killed or maimed hundreds of thousands of children every year.

The eradication of the Wild Polio Virus in Nigeria meant a lot to everyone, especially African leaders and the International community. On that day, the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and President of Rotary International, Holger Knaack issued a Press statement they jointly authored, describing the polio eradication in Africa as “one of the greatest achievements in public health history.”

The statement titled, ‘Creating a great polio legacy in the African region’, noted that “Delivering polio vaccines to every child in the African region and wiping out the wild virus is no small feat and the human resources, skills, and experience gained in the process leaves behind a legacy in how to tackle diseases and reach the poorest and most marginalized communities with life-saving services.”

While commending Leadership from all levels of government across party lines, Ghebreyesus and Knaack recognized what they called a “historic public-private partnership” that raised billions, millions of health workers who reached children across the region – from conflict zones to remote areas only accessible by motorbike or helicopter, in a bid to ensure that wild polio virus is fought to a standstill.

The Nigeria president, Muhammadu Buhari was not left out of the excitement. President Buhari during the virtual session of the 70th World Health Organisation (WHO) regional committee for Africa in the State House, Abuja, said African countries could defeat COVID-19 pandemic the same way it overcame the Wild Polio Virus on the continent.A statement by the president’s media adviser, Mr. Femi Adesina, quoted him to have said that the eradication of polio in Nigeria was the fulfilment of his promise in 2015 upon assuming office, not to bequeath a polio-endemic country to his successor.

He also lauded Bill and Melinda Gates, Aliko Dangote and Sir Emeka Offor for their contributions in ending wild Polio in Nigeria. Also recognized for their efforts were the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, GAVI, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), European Union (EU), the Japanese and German governments and various non-governmental organisations, who contributed in one way or the other.

The eradication of Wild Polio Virus in Nigeria is another testament that with will, good leadership and commitment, the country can achieve a whole lot in the health sector and other sectors of the economy. While we recognize the leadership offered by the government, both at the federal and state levels, the real heroes of this achievement are those who offered the invaluable propeller of other efforts. Notwithstanding that the federal government pointed out that Nigeria used data systems, community engagement and innovative technology to monitor and predict the occurrence of polio outbreaks, some people’s commitment to the course gave mileage to the fight.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the Chief Executive Officer of Dangote Group, Aliko Dangote, the chairman of Chrome Group, Sir Emeka Offor, stood out. However, what is interesting about the contribution of Sir Emeka Offor is his partnership with Rotary international through his foundation in the fight against Wild Polio Virus. Sir Emeka Offor Foundation is one of the stakeholders in the fight against polio and still remains the highest African donor to Rotary International towards eradication of polio.  The Nigerian business leader and philanthropist, Sir Emeka Offor, had at the 2013 convention of Rotary International in Sydney, Australia announced a $1 million gift to The Rotary Foundation for polio eradication efforts. With that, his contributions to Rotary’s campaign to rid the world of this deadly disease totaled more than $3.1 million. He told the attendees at the third plenary session that his commitment to ending polio was a personal one. Sir Offor said, “Scores of my friends and classmates fell victim to this dreaded disease. As a young man I vowed that I would someday do something significant to end polio in Nigeria.” His contributions earned him, Rotary International Polio Ambassador to Nigeria and in living up to his ambassadorial activities, the Anambra state born philanthropist opened a Polio Plus Ambassador’s Office at no cost to Rotary, in Abuja. This he was doing alongside his commitment to the elimination of river blindness in Nigeria. It could be recalled that on June 12, 2015, Sir Emeka Offor announced a $10 million pledge to The Carter Center to help accomplish Nigeria’s objective of completely eliminating river blindness (onchocerciasis) by 2020. It was the largest gift ever received by The Carter Center from an individual African donor, in their fight against river blindness since 1996.

According to the Chairman of the Nigeria National Polio plus Committee of Rotary International, Tunji Funsho, the global campaign to eradicate Wild Polio Virus cost $17billion Dollars. Of the said sum, Funsho disclosed that Rotary International alone, committed $2.2billion, and expended $298 Million Dollars in 15 years, to combat and eradicate the wild poliovirus in Nigeria.

Aside the contributions of Sir Offor and the Rotary International, accolades must be given to health workers and volunteers whose hard work and resilience over the decades were very crucial. They took the immunization exercise to every corner of the country, including the remotest areas in a bid to protect millions of children. They continued even in the midst of rejection, antagonism and other challenges. Ministers of Health and other stakeholders such as political, traditional, religious, and community leaders who provided the required support and leadership are not overlooked.

Also worthy to note are educators and the media, who played a significant role in crumbling the initial resistance to Wild Polio virus vaccination in certain parts of Nigeria. From 1996 to 2001, some gains were recorded in aggressive and expansive mass immunization exercises in Nigeria’s fight against polio nationally. In the South, polio transmission was successfully halted in 2005. However, the campaign in the North faltered, no thanks to rumors and misconceptions about the safety of the vaccine. Also, the activities of Boko Haram in the northeast disrupted actions, leading to increase in Polio cases from 202 in 2002 to 1,122 in 2006.

But the story later changed as advocacies, funding and sensitization campaigns changed the trajectory. Awareness on the virus grew and by late 2013, polio cases came down. By July 2015, Nigeria had become delisted from the three endemic nations remaining Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though the country suffered a set-back in 2016 following the report of two isolated cases of Wild Polio Virusin July 2016, they were the only recorded cases of polio in Nigeria since July 2014. But that did not deter the collective efforts, rather it was a call for recommitment and it gave rise to a statement in Igbo language, “Ofoduru nwantii” translated in pidgin English as ‘E remain small’.

Vigilance was maintained, surveillance intensified across borders, and there was continued drive on national immunization campaign, particularly in the hard to reach communities of the northeast.On 21st August 2019, Nigeria marked three years without any case of wild Poliovirus.

It is heartwarming to note how the strong partnership between the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and Governments of Nigeria worked tirelessly and collaboratively to deliver this success we celebrate today. While we celebrate the achievement of the eradication of Wild Polio Virus in Nigeria and Africa at large, we must not let down our guards. We must guard this feat jealously and ensure all necessary steps are taken to prevent a resurgence of this dreaded disease.We must not assume that it is all home and dry, rather the Polio eradication feat should be a spring board to remain safe when we are safe. It will require maintaining surveillance and sustaining routine immunisation.

As Nigeria joined three other African countries – Cameroon, Central African Republic, and South Sudan – to get a Wild Polio Virus-free certification by the Africa Regional Certification Commission, such feat ought to be replicated in the fight against Covid 19. All we need is the political will, investments, strategies and commitment to flatten the epidemic curve.

Rotarians all over the world and particularly for those in Nigeria, should celebrate the eradication of Polio in Nigeria.Without dimisihing the efforts of the government and other players, Sir Emeka Offor, Rotary International, the health workers and volunteers and the communication soldiers, are the real MVPs. In the words of President Muhammadu Buhari, they are the heroes and heroines in the war against polio.

Frank Okonkwo

Anambra

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