Nigerian activist Ayuba Gufwan made sure his five children received polio vaccinations soon after they were born.
“I was determined to make sure none of my kids got the polio virus because I am a victim myself,” he said.
Gufwan came down with polio when he was 5 years old. Forced to crawl on the floor, he wasn’t able to attend school for years and faced ridicule.
These days, Gufwan is a popular advocate for the needs of polio survivors. His organization has supplied more than 26,000 locally produced wheelchairs for Nigerians living with the disease.
The government has been working with organizations such as UNICEF, Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to train health workers, procure the vaccine and spread awareness. This week, those efforts paid off. On Wednesday, Nigeria marked three years without a new case of wild polio virus.
It’s a status many say is a cause to celebrate, but Dr. Usman Adamu, who helps coordinate the Nigerian government polio eradication operations center, offered a more measured response.
“It’s not a celebration per se,” Adamu said. “It’s just marking the milestone, which is significant in our quest to achieve eradication and, subsequently, certification.”
The next step for Nigeria to be certified polio-free will be rigorous surveillance to see that there are no further cases of the wild polio virus. Nigeria could be declared polio-free as soon as mid-2020.
Over the last few years, 400,000 health workers have been deployed across the country to administer the vaccine house to house and monitor and spread awareness about it. Since the early 2000s, the health teams have had to dispel misconceptions about the vaccine.
In the language of northern Nigeria, Hausa, polio is translated as shan innah. That conveys the idea that spirits are paralyzing a child’s legs, leaving the child with the telltale symptom of polio, floppy limbs.
Hostility toward the vaccine also came from respected Muslim leaders in Nigeria.
Gufwan, who was part of the awareness campaign, recalled some of the long-standing rumors spread in northern Nigeria, where Islam is the dominant religion.
“Some fundamentalist Muslims rejected the polio vaccine and came up with this conspiracy theory that the vaccine had been adulterated and that it had the potential to sterilize, particularly the girl child, and that it was a calculated attempt by the Western powers to reduce the Muslim population in Nigeria and other parts of the Islamic world,” he said.
The conspiracies led to the suspension of the vaccination campaign in certain parts of the country in 2003. And that led to new cases.
Suspicions intensified again among Nigerian Muslims after it was made known that the American CIA set up a fake polio vaccination drive to track down and kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
It took the help of traditional leaders to finally stop the rumors swirling around northern Nigeria.
Alhaji Samaila Muhammad Mera, the emir of Argungu in Nigeria’s Kebbi state, decided to use his role as a traditional ruler to educate his community.
“Anything you think you need to do to change perceptions, to change attitudes, you need to get a messenger that is trusted by the community that you target,” he said.
His state hasn’t had a new case of polio in five years, a drastic change from 15 cases in 2009.
Despite the successes, there are glaring problems. Boko Haram terrorism has made it nearly impossible to reach certain areas in the northeastern region, where an estimated 60,000 children have not been vaccinated.
In 2013, nine polio workers were killed by suspected Boko Haram gunmen.
Another challenge is open defecation. Polio is usually passed through feces. Nigeria has the second-highest open defecation rate in the world, just after India.
But Gufwan said he was hopeful that Nigeria would finally be free of polio. He said it was long overdue but better late than never.