LAGOS, Nigeria – Polio is a contagious viral illness that has been stamped out in all developed nations, but lingers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. The disease exists in two forms: nonparalytic and paralytic polio. The nonparalytic strains usually cause mild, flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, vomiting and fatigue. However, the paralytic strain is much more agonizing, causing loss of reflexes, severe muscle weakness and loose, floppy limbs. It can affect the brain-stem, spinal cord, or both. Furthermore, post-polio syndrome can occur many years after one contracts the virus, resulting in muscle and joint weakness, fatigue, difficulty breathing and swallowing, and lapses in concentration and memory.
The last case of polio reported in the United States was in 1979, largely due to vaccination efforts. Since a global eradication effort was launched in 1988, instances of the disease have decreased by 99%. Twenty-nine cases were reported in 2015: 25 in Pakistan and 4 in Afghanistan. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative long considered transmission in Nigeria as one of the greatest obstacles in defeating polio, but recent progress in the country has indicated that they could soon be declared polio-free.
Nigeria’s last reported case of polio was July 24, 2014. To be officially declared polio-free by the World Health Organization, the country must go a full year with no new cases. This is positive news for not only Nigeria, but surrounding nations as well – after neighboring countries had been declared polio-free, outbreaks later occurred that were linked to Nigeria.
Wiping out polio in Nigeria has been exceptionally difficult due to the population’s previously widespread suspicion of vaccines. In 1996, the company Pfizer distributed a meningitis vaccine in Nigeria that killed and disabled dozens of children. Religious leaders began stating that vaccines were a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children, increasing the public’s fear. Many vaccine programs were suspended, and people became hostile toward those giving vaccines, some going so far as to shoot and kill health officials.
However, years of strong efforts to change Nigeria’s perceptions of vaccines have paid off. Nigeria was promised additional international aid only if they agreed to focus on eradicating polio. Health officials sought after religious leaders to support vaccination campaigns, and workers were mobilized to educate families about the positive effects of vaccines. The general public is now much more accepting and supportive of vaccination programs, and most understand how debilitating polio can be and want to protect their children.
There are still some concerns about Nigeria’s eradication status. Health officials cannot vaccinate and monitor those living in areas controlled by Boko Haram, and some speculate that polio could spread undetected in such areas. Nomadic families can also be difficult to reach. A full surveillance of Nigeria will be necessary to determine that there have been no new cases of polio.
Efforts to eradicate polio will not end with Nigeria, and mass vaccination campaigns are still needed until the virus is completely gone, especially in Afghanistan. However, these positive developments in Nigeria prove that a future without polio is possible.
– Jane Harkness