Nigeria was declared polio-free in September 2015, however cases discovered in 2016 in the country’s remote northeast put it back on the list of endemic countries alongside Pakistan and Afghanistan.The sobering outbreak of polio virus in northeastern Nigeria underscores the urgency of eradicating the disease in conflict-affected areas. Government of Nigeria and the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of wild polio virus in conflict-ridden Borno state in August 2016, where children are already facing dangerously high levels of malnutrition. The two cases were discovered in parts of Borno that have recently become accessible, but large areas of the state remain unreachable.
Nigeria and the continent had its last confirmed polio case two years ago and was within a year of being certified polio-free, thanks to a massive mobilization by the government, partners and local health providers.
Nigeria was declared polio-free in September 2015, however cases discovered in 2016 in the country’s remote north-east put it back on the list of endemic countries alongside Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Traditional rulers should be considered in taking action to get more children vaccinated and to rid northern Nigeria of polio.
In northern Nigeria, the notion of community development ‒ collective ownership and action taken by locals to tackle issues such as disease, illiteracy and poverty ‒ is a powerful thing. Formal structures and networks exist at the Local Government Area (LGA) level, down to the ward and even village levels, to help facilitate meaningful and sustainable change. And for Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners working to once-and-for-all rid Nigeria of the crippling polio virus, success hinges on tapping into these networks.
One of such social hierarchy to be involved in the fight against polio is traditional leaders such as village and district heads. Although they wield no formal political power, these leaders who have retained their titles since pre-colonial times continue to command the respect of their local communities. Ahead of polio campaigns, traditional leaders should lead social mobilization committees to raise awareness of polio immunization and routine immunization more broadly. During campaigns, they should help to oversee the vaccination of children in their villages and wards. Importantly, these leaders should also use their influence to address cases of vaccine refusal, or ‘non-compliance’, when they arise.
Ways to Build trust in vaccines
While overall acceptance of polio immunization is extremely high – nationally, less than 1% of caregivers refuse vaccination – clusters of non-compliance in vaccination campaigns in northern Nigeria still hinder efforts to reach every child with oral polio vaccine (OPV), which is critical to eliminating the polio virus. For some caregivers, skepticism of the vaccine’s safety and effects is a barrier to acceptance. For others, it’s lack understanding the need for multiple OPV doses in order to build stronger immunity.
When vaccinators and community mobilizers are unable to persuade families to allow polio vaccination for their children, traditional leaders should be called upon. They should explain to parents the importance of vaccination for healthy children and a healthy society. To combat misinformation and rumours relating to the polio vaccine, they should team up with local religious leaders such as Imams and Islamic scholars to reassure caregivers that vaccination is safe and effective and in line with religious principles and practices. In most cases, these types of interventions result in hesitancy being eroded and families seeing the benefits of polio vaccination.
An important contribution to consider
“Engaging traditional leaders at all levels has been most effective in reducing cases of non-compliance across the country. These people are woven into the fabric of Nigerian society and this kind of affirmation of the benefits of vaccination by trusted local figures is helping families to make the right decision to vaccinate.
These people are highly influential in Nigerian society and the government should rely on their support to help sensitize communities on polio and other vaccine preventable diseases, the need for repeated vaccination until polio transmission is of great importance.
In addition to polio, traditional leaders should partner with GPEI to help address other important health issues such as routine immunization, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition and anti-natal care.
In conclusion, Advocacy meetings and sensitization workshops should be organized with high-level policy makers, traditional and religious leaders, including the Association of Proprietors of Koranic Schools in each local governments. Tsangaya teachers should also be engaged during immunization campaigns as part of the social mobilization teams within their respective settlements for the purpose of convincing those households which may refuse immunization.
More awareness about polio immunization should also engage Preachers and Imams, especially during Sunday church service and Friday prayer sessions to ensure that community are fully aware of the importance of immunization during every campaign and the risks to children who are not immunized. Rallies with school children and other awareness activities will be further organized at the community level in each of the participating local governments.
Monday Solomon is a Mass Communications student of University of Maiduguri and can be reached at: Emailfirstname.lastname@example.org