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Nigeria: People Will Forget One Day What Polio Looked Like

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

(All Africa) – In recent times, practicing neurosurgeon, and multiple Emmy-Award winning CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, was in Kano State, northern Nigeria to document Nigeria’s fight to wipe out polio, and the potential end of polio in Africa.

Nigeria is the last remaining country on the African continent yet to eliminate polio, but recently marked one year without a single case of the disease.

Last week, Gupta, best known for his captivating reports on health and medical topics, on CNN’s TV series, “Vital Signs”, spoke to the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who was largely instrumental in changing attitudes towards the oral polio vaccine in the state and northern Nigeria generally.

Prior to the chat with the Emir, Gupta spoke exclusively to SOLA OGUNDIPE, on his expectations of the emergence of a polio-free world. Excerpts:

IN Nigeria, we have crossed a milestone, one year without polio. In your estimation what is the significance of this to the polio eradication drive?

It’s a pretty remarkable milestone. When you think of polio, you think about the wild polio virus and the fact that it occurs naturally in an environment. Obviously, when vaccinating people and disinfecting them, you expect declining infection rate and when you go on for years, I think the significance is you are on your way to eradicating it.

Giving the vaccination rate now and the fact that it seems to be working, there has not been any case of polio for a year, we could be celebrating the eradication of polio sometimes in the future.

With this milestone, what should Nigeria be doing to obtain certification from the World Health Organisation as a polio free world?

As you know, there are still some areas that need to receive the immunisation for a period of time. Polio often times involves giving several vaccinations to people over a period of time. Each time you get additional drop, your protection goes up.

Worry about health services

Providing vaccines will protect as well as encourage people to seek health care. They know they will get significance from seeking the health care in the first place. And even if they are not worried about polio, they will be worried about something else. It improves the number of people that will seek out health services.

To date, India is the last country to eradicate polio. Are there specific lessons for Nigeria from India’s experience?

There’s a couple of issues in the last few countries that polio needs to be eradicated and they are learning from each other’s experiences.

There are areas where people are very hard to reach because of their religion or where they live or because people are migrating back and forth between places, you have got to come up with strategies to vaccinate such people.

For example; in India, they started creating a large data bases of people who are not necessarily part of the official census just for the good of polio eradication, they knew where people live and who received the vaccines.

They had a lot of data and that was one of the important things to do. They also had locals (insiders) in the areas that are not stable, so as to know how to administer the vaccines to them because one can’t just go to some area without proper knowledge of the people and their culture.

In Nigeria, especially in the north-eastern part, one of the issues with polio immunisation is rejection as result of some cultural and traditional believe and some issues about the vaccine. As a result of that, many people refuse to accept immunisation for their children. What can be done by way of helping to overcome these challenges?

It happens everywhere around the world, where people reject vaccines for different reasons. Such places require education about vaccines and leadership from the top needs to be involved as well.

For example, In Kano State, the leaders went to some of these areas and talked about the polio vaccine. So, I think good information from people they trust and leadership as well will help.

How can we ensure that some of the benefits accruing from the polio eradication can be plowed into combating other vaccine preventable diseases?

Well, you can really build on the polio eradication programme. Polio eradication has got a lot of attention. So I think that using the structure of the polio eradication programmeto providenot only the vaccine but other basic health services for the people is a real opportunity.

You are going to help save lives of people. Also, you have a situation where people who don’t really trust the polio vaccine will do as a result of other health services being offered. So, you can use the energy and momentum from polio eradication for other health services as well.

From your perspective, what can we anticipate of a polio-free world?

I think this will be a momentous occasion, especially for people who have been part of this vaccination programme. It is our job to keep reminding people how significant it is so we don’t become complacent with it.

A polio-free world will be an amazing world. People will forget one day what polio looked like. It is our responsibility to remind them not to scare them but to make sure they don’t get complacent.

What’s your last word?

When you talk about health, about vaccines and preventable diseases, it is important to everybody regardless of your politics, cultural background, gender, age etc. And overcoming health challenges is going to make Nigeria, Africa, ultimately the world a better place.

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