Polio, the minister and his magic, By Garba Shehu

Garba Shehu

In our country, magicians are not known to become ministers or CEOs of government departments.

The Executive Director, National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Dr. Ado Mohammed, and his Minister, Dr. Ali Pate, represent this paradigm shift. With “only” 25 cases recorded so for this year in Yobe and Borno States, the CEO of the NPHCDA boasts that Nigeria will soon exit the Club of the countries blemished by polio.

Speaking at a weekend event in Abuja where he blew the government’s trumpet on the success of the inter-government monitoring team, led by the Minister of State, Dr. Ali Pate, Ado noted that “case counts had reduced by over 50 per cent” compared to what they were last year. If you know polio, these 25 cases can become 100 before the blink of an eye.

Nigeria belongs to an infamous, four-nation club of polio-ravaged states called “PAIN” – Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria. India successfully exited this unwanted association and is actually in the second year awaiting certification. That leaves Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria but even in the case of Nigeria, you are only talking about Northern Nigeria because the South had been free of polio for about a decade.

With 25 (or 26 as reported by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative) cases, Nigeria accounts for between 40 to 50 per cent of the world’s total of 69 cases year-to-date. Afghanistan recorded only two and Pakistan 16. Why do I think that Mr. Pate needs magical powers to have Nigeria exit the PAIN in a year as he postulates? This country will not be ridding itself of the wild polio virus unless the law makes our change-resistant population to comply with the administration of vaccines, even involuntarily. There isn’t a nice way by which a stubbornly unyielding, illiterate population can be made to see the danger they pose to themselves and the country without the use of some kind of force to ensure compliance.

The story of the Governor of Kaduna State, Ramalan Yero Ahmed, who led a polio immunization team to Rigassa, a densely populated suburb in Igabi Local Government Area of his state, fits into this one. In a widely reported encounter he had with a trader and father of 12 children, the governor spent well over an hour trying to persuade the man, named Mohammed Sani, to allow the administration of the vaccine on his ward but all that came to nothing. The trader, said the reports, blocked the entrance of his compound, saying he did not believe that the vaccine was safe for his children. “I told him (Governor) that even if they are going to kill me, I will not allow the Governor to enter my house… I also said in the governor’s presence that even if President Jonathan comes here, I will not allow them to immunize my child.” He narrated how the governor tried to talk him into compliance and that he said no, and this drama did not eventually come to a close until force was used. Under the convention on the Rights of the Child, the international law recognizes that the child needs special safeguards and care. “I prayed to Allah to fight for me, because I was embarrassed by what happened in my house,” the man said in an apparent defiant resignation.

Given this type of cultural resistance to the vaccine, itself energized by an outspoken crop of ill-trained, fanatical Islamic scholars, who are themselves encouraged by an irresponsible set of scholars who continue to nurture the false assertion of the vaccine being a conspiracy against the Muslim population, Nigeria still has a long way to go. Government of the federation must also find a way to deal with politicians who cause mischief.

A one-time governorship candidate in Zamfara State told the indigenes of his state not to allow their children to be vaccinated because it allegedly caused barrenness in child-bearing. The same politician was meanwhile found to have done the contrary by allowing his children to be vaccinated in Lagos where he resided.

Minister Pate will find his way into the world of magic if he succeeds in getting the country to change some of these deep-seated attitudes and his inter-government committee to see beyond the procurement and supply of vaccines, to focus upon the need for cultural and attitudinal changes. That is what is required to chase polio out of Nigeria.

Government must get its acts together if it is to be taken seriously by citizens and global partners in the eradication of the polio disease. You certainly cannot do this where vaccines expire due to delays at the ports where clearing is too cumbersome. Vaccines also expire arising from breaks in cold chains blamed on failure of the public power system or generators that support cold storage. Nigeria is also notorious for failing to meet deadlines to access donor funds and the misuse of aid in cash or in kind.

Today, the HIV-AIDs is receding all over the world because of the growing improvements in medical diagnosis and treatment but more importantly because of behavioural changes in many communities. The lessons of safe sex have penetrated the hardest core of information dissemination. Mother to child transmission has been greatly reduced due to effective detection with mothers and the insulation of babies from infection. Today, nobody will administer blood on fellow human being without proper screening. But even in the face of these global advances, Nigeria continues to be the bad boy accounting for 40 per cent of new HIV-AIDs transmissions. There are 1.4 million Nigerians who are supposed to be on anti-retroviral drugs but only 400,000 of them are reached with the drugs by both government and the international donor agencies.

These days, hardly do you hear of those vigorous campaigns against tuberculosis. What has gone wrong? Reports on Nigeria indicate that while the main strain is under control, the more dangerous one resistant to drugs is rising.

All of these stories point to one thing, which is that there is no easy solution to the many epidemics that plague Nigeria, especially where emphasis continues to be on money and medicines. While these two continue to grab attention, the magical power anyone can wield in dealing a blow to polio, TB and AIDs is to work to change popular attitudes, which is of course a very difficult thing to do. Drs. Ado and Pate do not need to beg to prove themselves. When the results are there, the whole world will see them. No magic is needed.

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