On September 25th 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) was removed the list of polio endemic countries, an important milestone that has taken years for the country to achieve. In fact, as much of the world began to move away from new cases of the infection, Nigeria consistently remained on the top four list of polio-endemic countries which also included India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the WHO, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide.
The virus has been historically confined to the northern part of the country where progress against new cases, particularly through immunization efforts had been an uphill battle. With stories and scare tactics playing a major role in the prevention of treatment services, many families refused to vaccinate their children. This all rapidly changed after the government declared polio a national health emergency. In the midst of militant insurgency, mobile teams were tasked to vaccinate displaced children and their families. But the most important individuals at the front lines were family members who took it upon themselves to protect their children and their communities.
Individuals like Halima Ibrahim Zubair highlight the impact that awareness has in engendering public health. “It pains me when children and women die of completely preventable causes”, she said in an interview with UNICEF.
Zubair is not unlike mothers in Gaya in the state of Kano, Nigeria a Local Government Area (LGA) in a town of over 200,000 people. She is a mother of six, but she is also a community mobilizer with UNICEF where she serves on the front lines in the delivery of vaccines and other healthcare services to children. With the support of her team, more than 95 percent of the children in her community were vaccinated against polio. Her role as a gatekeeper meant that new families in the area were introduced to immunization efforts, particularly if they have children between the ages of 2 months to 6 years.
Zubair’s active role in helping to sharply reduce the rate of new infections in her community shatters the stereotypical view of women in northern Nigeria, and also reinforces the role of women as protectors and health custodians of their families. Her ability to mobilize other women and their families sets the precedent for what is hopefully the last Nigeria – and the rest of the continent sees of polio.
There remains a lot of work to be done in preventing a resurgence of new cases, which will mean routine immunization, active campaigns and surveillance of possible outbreaks. Nigeria will actually need to maintain its disease free status, that is, report no new cases for two more years before it receives an official clean bill of health. Halima Ibrahim Zubair’s name will be remembered as an influential woman who made things happen in the midst of seeming impossibilities; if she can do it, anybody else can.
Image: Priyanka Khanna/UNICEF