Sometimes, it seems like the bad news from Nigeria never stops. Tucked away in the December 23, New York Times was a brief notice that on December 22, explosions in Gombe state killed at least twenty-six and wounded seventy-nine. That carnage in northern Nigeria merited less than sixty words, so inured has the international community become.
Yet, just in time for Christmas there is a good-news story from northern Nigeria. The polio vaccination campaign, more than a decade old, is working. The Globe and Mail (Toronto) reports that only six cases of polio have been recorded this year in Nigeria, a 90 percent drop from last year. There has not been a single case of wild polio virus in the past six months. The Globe and Mail quotes Tunji Funsho, chairman of the Rotary Polio Plus Committee in Nigeria as saying, “We can see light at the end of the tunnel. All the hard work that we’ve been doing is seeming to pay off now.”
Indeed, this is an extraordinary achievement. When I arrived in Nigeria in 2004 northern politicians and religious leaders claimed that the polio vaccine caused HIV/AIDS and infertility. As recently as February 2013 gunmen killed nine vaccination workers.
The answer appears to be the work of the Rotary and the Gates Foundations combined with the Jonathan governments strict imposition of rules in support of the polio vaccination strategy along with energized Nigerian civil goups. In addition, religious leaders have assisted the campaign. Vaccine workers also show a new sensitivity to cultural norms. For example, they vaccinate children in front of their houses, not inside. Technology helps too, supervisors use satellite devices to track the movements of vaccinators. Hence, villages overlooked can be visited. They have even been able to track and vaccinate nomadic cattle-herding families.
The security situation also plays a part in the treatment strategy. In parts of northern Nigeria plagued by Boko Haram, vaccinators use hit-and-run tactics. In coordination with security forces they go into an area when it is safe, vaccinate, and then run back to safety.
For anybody who has seen Nigerians paralyzed by polio getting about on skate boards (wheel chairs can be a luxury), the apparent elimination of polio is a huge achievement. Deo gratias.