Why we will eradicate polio in Nigeria

As we drove away from the Muna camp for Internally Displaced Persons on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the capital city of restive Borno State in Nigeria, a young boy dressed in brown tunic and pants gave us a  friendly, somewhat surprised wave.

At 60,000 inhabitants, the camp had doubled in size since the same time last year as conflict continues to push people from their homes. My visit to the camp was the final stop on a trip to Nigeria with the Chair of Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee, Mike McGovern, on the occasion of the country having not reported a case of polio for a year. But while we marked the date on the calendar, the visit was not celebratory.  Nigeria had reported no cases of polio for two years between 2014 and 2016, and all were disappointed by the new cases identified in Borno in August of last year.

We saw and did many things during the trip with the deputy state governor, including immunizing newborn babies in the camp to protect them from polio. We drank water from a newly inaugurated borehole bringing much needed clean water in an area without sanitation. We greeted over 70 polio survivors of all ages outside the Polio Emergency Operation Center in Maiduguri, and thanked the polio laboratory staff at a facility named after Past District Governor Larry Huot of Oregon, USA. We noted that the team may have already identified the last case of polio in Nigeria.

Before reaching Borno, we traveled to Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja, with the leadership of the Nigeria National PolioPlus Committee chaired by Abdulrahman (Tunji) Funsho, Director-elect Yinka Babalola, and a myriad of other Rotary leaders.  We inaugurated water wells, visited schools and clinics, visited with mothers, immunized children, met government and community leaders, participated in meetings of polio Emergency Operations Centers, discussed strategies with partner organizations WHO and UNICEF, and attended Rotary club meetings. We also met with past RI President Jonathan Majiyagbe and his wife, Ayo.

Our discussions focused on the major challenges at hand – ensuring that every child in Nigeria, especially in Borno, is reached with the polio vaccine and avoiding complacency in the absence of polio cases.

I am convinced we will eradicate polio in Nigeria and was reminded for whom we are working to eradicate polio – it is for the children of the world, embodied in the young boy, waving goodbye as we departed from the Muna camp.

We presented the newly established PolioPlus Memorial Scholarships to three masters’ level students studying public health at Ibadan University. The scholarship was created to recognize those health care workers who have been injured or killed while carrying out polio immunization activities and requires students to demonstrate a commitment to their communities after graduation.

On the flight home, I pondered what I had seen and heard: the makeshift thatched homes in Muna camp and the challenges of being a polio survivor in Nigeria; the personal commitment of Rotary members; efforts to access children in areas of conflict; community leaders working to improve their neighborhoods with clean water; and government officials participating in immunization campaigns.

I am convinced we will eradicate polio in Nigeria and was reminded for whom we are working to eradicate polio – it is for the children of the world, embodied in the young boy, waving goodbye as we departed from the Muna camp.

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Rotary  | Jan. 25, 2018