Penultimate week, Aliko Dangote, the African business mogul and his American counterpart, Bill Gates embarked on troubleshooting trips across and beyond Nigeria in their quest to ensure Nigeria becomes polio free.
For the Africa’s riches man, “It is quite embarrassing that Nigeria is one of the only three countries in the world that are yet to be certified polio free.” The other two being Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Therefore, for the whole week Dangote Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have been at the fore front as private sector partners in the process of elimination of polio, went on assessment of the situation in the areas earlier affected by the disease and the neighbouring Chad Republic, where the two and their teams met with President Idris Deby and other key government officials in Ndjamena.
Polio is a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease. It is an infectious viral disease that affects the central nervous system and can cause temporary or permanent paralysis, most especially in the leg. Children not older than 5 years are more likely to contract the virus than any other group, therefore the epidemic inflicts economic loss of colossal dimension on a nation as youths, the future generation, which forms a plank of the productive population are affected.
Polio is caused by a highly contagious virus specific to humans. The virus usually enters the environment in the feces of someone who is infected. In areas with poor sanitation, the virus easily spreads through the fecal-oral route, via contaminated water or food. In addition, direct contact with a person infected with the virus can cause polio. The infection with poliovirus and direct contact with persons increase the risk.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), a country is regarded as polio free if no cases have been detected for a year. However, no cases of the virus have been reported in the last sixteen months in Nigeria but it is feared that it is still possible polio circulates under some prevailing circumstances as was the case, where a particular strain of virus resurfaced after five years in 2016 which professionals adduced to inadequate surveillance and under-vaccinated populations. Even a single case is considered an epidemic.
Over the years, Dangote Foundation has been involved in causes that guarantee healthy life for the Nigerian child and reduce extreme poverty among the vulnerable especially women. It was in this spirit that he had deployed his resources, for critical interventions, among which issues are bordering on nutrition, routine immunisation and commitment to eradicate polio.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) described as multiple factors hampering eradication of the virus especially in the North. Many of the factors, it stated in one of its report on Polio eradication, are embedded in the country’s broad social-political dynamics and enduring chasm between the governed and the government and a decentralised governmental system that often neglect service delivery to marginalised communities.
Some of the obstacles to polio eradication in Nigeria as in many other countries are the lack of basic health infrastructure, which limits vaccine distribution and delivery, the crippling effects of internal strife occasioned by insurgents’ activities which has turned some areas in the North-East as hard-reach.
The visit to Chad was necessitated by the fact that Chad is next to Nigeria from North East axis where immunisation penetration has been very difficult. Any movement of the virus across the border might put Chad into jeopardy hence the need to intensify immunisation in the country especially in the islands close to the insurgents’ enclave.
Besides Chad is said to be spending less than before on vaccines and routine immunisation operational costs, both in absolute terms as well as a proportion of total expenditures. Therefore, both Dangote and Gates were able to obtain commitment from President Idris Deby to personally track the ability of the polio program to access and actually go to all 800 Chadian islands in the lake Convince with a promise to step up his political and financial support for routine immunisation.
The Chadian President then signed a declaration, committing to increase immunisation rates in Chad and end polio in the region. Though Chad has not seen a case of wild polio since 2012, a 2016 polio outbreak in Nigeria placed those in neighbouring countries at risk, particularly children who live on the hard-to-reach islands of Lake Chad.
President Déby reaffirmed his support to the region-wide effort to stop polio, saying “improving the health of Chad’s children is critical. I am committed to working with neighbouring governments to end polio for good in Africa, and to protecting more of our country’s children with vaccines against other deadly diseases.”
After the signing Dangote said all countries in the region including Chad share a responsibility to protect every child with polio vaccine. Until this happens, the risk of wild polio cases spreading remains.
Dangote said, “We are close to stopping polio on the continent but we are not done yet. We want to save the lives of 250, 000 child with application of right vaccines. Unless we protect all children in Africa with the polio vaccine, the risk of the virus spreading will remain. That is why the Dangote Foundation is determined to continue working with Nigeria’s neighbours including Chad, to improve immunisation rates and end polio for good.”
He stated that Polio eradication is a must because it is a disease that causes paralysis and in some instances, death.
He explained that thirty years ago, it paralysed an estimated 350,000 people, last year there were just 22 cases confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan, a record low. But, the fight against polio is not over until there are no cases anywhere in the world for at least three years.
“As a Nigerian, I feel that I have a special responsibility to make sure that Africa is free from polio since my country has been the one exporting the virus for so many years.
“The polio outbreak in Borno a year and a half ago was a big setback. And a lot of work has been done to get it under control. Including your country. But I am concerned especially about the risks that still remain. Nigeria cannot reach thousands of settlements, and its islands in Lake Chad because of Boko Haram. And until we do, you will need to be super vigilant on your side.”
Meanwhile, at the Sokoto Government house six governors of Kaduna, Bornu, Yobe, Sokoto, Bauchi and Kano signed a Memorandum of Understanding extending their commitment to counterpart responsibilities including funding to deepening coverage of immunisation in their respective state.
Dangote urged the governors not to be distracted by the coming electioneering but to keep focus on the polio endgame.
“That means we should keep the counter-part funding commitments; that we ensure the April and May campaigns are done well, and that LGA Chairmen and District Heads are involved in preparations and implementation of the campaigns,” he said.