When unfounded rumours led to vaccines boycott in Nigeria, some traditional leaders in the north, including His Royal Highness, the Emir of Argungu, Alhaji Samaila Muhammadu Mera, teamed up with the Federal Government to lead the polio sensitization campaign on the importance of vaccination.
Polio eradication in Nigeria, a feat which was accomplished in June 2020, suffered many setbacks, the major challenge was the widespread misconception about the vaccine, which led to vaccine hesitancy in 2003 as many communities were reluctant to have polio vaccine given to children.
Clearly, something changed.
The partnership with the present Emir, the 33rd Sarkin Kabi, of Argungu, and other traditional leaders provided a golden opportunity to forge a clear path forward in the polio campaign in northern Nigeria – which was the epicentre of the polio epidemic in the country.
To win the battle, the Emir, Alhaji Samaila Muhammadu Mera, used his position as the custodian of the people to educate the general public in the respective communities on risks posed by poliomyelitis and where need be, used the law to enforce the right of the child.
Here, the Emir narrates the role he played during the journey to polio eradication in the country.
Stopping the menace of poliomyelitis does not only give relief to parents, caregivers but also us as fathers, who are concerned about the well-being and welfare of our individual and collective communities. We lost so many children with potential from the region and Nigeria.
I took up the challenge due to my roles and responsibilities as a father, community leader and role model who is responsible for the welfare and well-being of my people. I saw it as a golden opportunity to protect the well-being of my people and the reputation of my country amongst the comity of nations that have undertaken to eradicate polio globally.
The role I played as a traditional ruler
The mission started in 2004 after the agitation from some states like Zamfara and Kano, who in 2000 threatened to boycott the Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI) campaign entirely.
With the impending dangers, the Northern Traditional leaders set up a committee of professionals, which included vaccine experts, medical doctors, religious leaders and traditional rulers, with representatives from the press, to visit laboratories in South Africa, India and Indonesia where vaccines used in Nigeria were manufactured.
The team also included professionals from universities and anti-vaccine campaigners that alleged contamination of vaccines. The Jamaa’tul Nasrul Islam on behalf of the traditional and religious leaders paid for the trip and provided money for renting laboratories in these countries to allow professionals in the group from both sides to test batches of vaccines to confirm whether or not they were contaminated.
The outcome of the committee’s visit was positive – in favour of the efficacy and safety of polio vaccines (i.e., no evidence of contamination).
The laboratory result made our work a bit easier.
We always started our awareness campaign by referring to that report citing the names and qualifications of members of the committee as a testament. We used role-modelling by publicly vaccinating our children on live media. Some of us (Traditional Leaders) went a step further by inoculating ourselves several times to convince the doubting Thomas of the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.
My role as a polio advocate covered every physical aspect of the campaign, apart from the policy issue. We did mass mobilisation and education. We formed vaccination teams and selected members of vaccination teams for the polio campaign exercises. We even took part in the micro planning at some point and supported surveillance. We participated in the planning and review meetings of the PEI activities. I have travelled severally to the United States America, United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates during the period of campaigns to talk about the efforts of traditional and religious leaders.
We tackled issues of cultural and religious resistance which had led to the hesitancy in two ways: by engaging in productive discussion one-on-one with the resistant groups or individuals, and by using the law to enforce the right of a child to access a vaccine. I deemed that every child has a right to access vaccines and do all that is needed to ensure he/she gets his or her rights.
I am so happy and grateful to God and to those who contributed to achieving this status. We have learnt many lessons during the campaigns. The first lesson is that vaccines work. Secondly, it has strengthened the relationship between traditional leaders and their communities because they have been proven right. We have learnt that persistent communication and education is key, but most importantly trust between the messenger carrying the message and the receiver of the message. In other words, trust is critical. The experience serves as a foundation for building trust towards strengthening routine immunization and other public health interventions.
I feel so grateful and thankful for the opportunity to serve my people and my country, especially, seeing young and vulnerable children free from a debilitating disease, is comforting to me. I thank his eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto for appointing me in the committee. I am grateful to the Governors of Kebbi State that I worked with during the period, for their cooperation and support.
I also thank all the stakeholders, traditional leaders, health workers, international partner organisations and donors (World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children’s Funds (UNICEF), Rotary International , Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Dangote Foundation) that we worked with, for expanding my horizon on matters of public health. We appreciate the effort of all stakeholders.
I think we need to maintain the partnerships and investment that worked so perfectly to achieve the polio-free status and build on the lessons learnt during the campaign to tackle future public health challenges.