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Of resurgent polio cases

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The growing concern being expressed by Nigerians over the outbreak of Vaccine Derived Poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) in 13 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) should not be treated lightly. Much as it seemed to have taken the country by surprise, the outbreak of this polio variant is outrightly unfortunate considering the huge funds expended on polio eradication. According to health professionals, this outbreak is worrisome as it threatens Nigeria’s wild polio virus-free status even as it is likely to compound the nation’s wobbly healthcare delivery system.

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Recent reports stated that the Executive Director of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr Faisal Shuaib, confirmed the cVDPV2 outbreaks in the FCT, Jigawa, Kano, Kebbi, Lagos, Niger, Rivers, Sokoto, Yobe, Zamfara, Abia, Bayelsa, Borno and Delta states. Shuaib was also said to have noted that the agency had conducted four Outbreak Response strategies (OBRs) using the Novella Oral Polio Vaccine.

Although polio (poliomyelitis) has endured so much controversy in the politics of global healthcare, it should be emphasised that its virulent and deadly nature has not abated. Medical experts have described polio as a highly infectious viral disease that invades the nervous system and capable of causing irreversible paralysis in a matter of hours. According to the Polio Global Eradication Initiative, “Polio is spread through person-to-person contact. When a child is infected with wild poliovirus, the virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. It is then shed into the environment through the faeces where it can spread rapidly through a community, especially in situations of poor hygiene and sanitation.”

Given the nature of transmission, through foods and drinks contaminated with infected faeces and the symptomless state of infected persons, the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers a single confirmed case of polio paralysis to be evidence of an epidemic.

All this calls for concern, especially at a time the Ministry of Health and its stakeholders are grappling with the possibility of a third wave and the deadly Delta variant of the COVID-19. It also leads us to ask: What is it that Nigeria did not do right when it was claimed that polio had been eradicated? What lessons can we learn from polio to address other pandemic outbreaks like COVID-19?

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Indeed, with her resources, Nigeria has no reason to be a polio state. It would be recalled that Nigeria, on August 25, 2020, became the last country in Africa to be certified free from wild polio after the last reported case in Borno in 2016. However, in these precarious times of healthcare management, when health workers are overwhelmed with COVID-19 management, Nigeria must do all it can to jealously guard its WPV-free status and stop the cVDPV2 transmission in communities. Whilst the Wild Polio Virus (WPV) is the most common form of poliovirus, circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus or cVDPV is another form of polio that can spread within communities which Nigeria is currently experiencing.

As the WHO has advised, immunisation with the appropriate vaccines remains the most potent prevention measure against polio. This being the case, the government health authorities and community leaders must work together to ensure that children in the affected states are properly immunised.

Nearly a decade ago, when Nigeria was embroiled in the polio controversy leading to the death of foreign medical workers and immunisation officers in Kano State, experts and stakeholders implicated clerics and journalists suspected to have been at the forefront of misinformation. Given the recent outbreak and its widespread nature, it is not unlikely that such atavistic sentiments would be recalled. In readiness for such, Nigerians must guard against paid hirelings who may be deployed to foment trouble.

This is where those at the forefront of information gathering and dissemination, especially clerics, community leaders and journalists, should demonstrate a high level of information management. As they have always been reminded, they should be conscious of the moral demands of their roles to the community and society at large.

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Like COVID-19 and like malaria, polio is a health issue. Nigerians, either as individuals or as a collective, must strip themselves of cultural and religious inhibitions that make them victims of not only polio but also of other endemic afflictions. Community must eschew all forms of politicisation of polio for political gains. Concerted efforts should be made to discourage misinterpretation of immunisation exercises. Therefore, it behooves them to eschew all subversive tendencies and inclinations towards disinformation and misinformation.

In states where polio cases have been reported, government should empower their local government officials to mobilise traditional chieftains, community and religious leaders to sensitise their fold on the resurgence of polio. Whilst polio is prevalent amongst children aged five and below, it can infect persons of any age. Therefore, beyond conscious aggressive immunisation of children in affected areas, there should also be emphasis on good sanitation. This is very crucial because poverty and poor sanitation are becoming widespread with the dwindling economy and dismal healthcare regulation. Besides, communities need to partner with philanthropic or charity organisations and harness resources towards a polio-free country.

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