Nigeria: Tackling polio at the source

Nigeria’s northern states are the last reservoir of naturally occurring wild polio virus in Africa. The states of Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, Kaduna, Kano and Katsina, are especially at high risk, mainly due to the mobile nature of the population. This means that if a person infected with the wild polio virus is on the move, the virus can easily spread, making the neighbouring states extremely susceptible to potential polio outbreaks.

Immunization coverage remains low in the northern states partly due to insecurity, persistent myths about negative effects of immunization, and in part because other health issues, like malaria and HIV take priority in an already stretched health environment. The common myths surrounding vaccinations include perceptions that vaccines have several damaging and long-term side-effects which remain unknown; vaccinations can be fatal and cause sudden infant death syndrome; vaccines can lead to female sterilization, among others.

Furthermore, access to local health facilities is not always easy. Distances are great. In addition to this, the health facilities often lack the capacity, trained staff and/or basic equipment such as cold storage facilities that are necessary to stock vaccines.

As auxiliary to the government, the Nigerian Red Cross Society has implemented social mobilization activities for routine immunization, including polio vaccination, through its mothers club, school units, and health action team. The National Society is currently active in 11 states, with 2,000 volunteers committed to extending vaccination facilities to the most hard-to-reach areas. The community health workforce, including trained Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, are delivering crucial and culturally sensitive messages, to bridge the social and cultural gaps, dispel myths and change mind-sets and attitudes, to increase vaccine uptake.

The Nigerian Red Cross Society has been stepping up its efforts for years, especially within communities in the northern states, and continues to support the government’s National Polio Emergency Plan. “Polio prevention, vaccination, and care activities are integrated in our maternal, newborn and child health programme, seen as children under-five are most vulnerable to the disease. We also carry out ad hoc polio activities during routine immunization campaigns as well as national vaccination days dedicated to polio”, says Dr Uche Ogba, head of health and care at the Nigerian Red Cross Society.

“Our strength lies in our excellent network of volunteers on the ground”, adds Dr Ogba. According to reports from the state Ministry of Health, there was an increase to 80 per cent of immunization coverage in areas where Nigerian Red Cross Society volunteers carried out their activities in Kaduna state”.

Despite many challenges and setbacks to polio immunization in the northern part of the country due to insurgent violence, ongoing efforts to eradicate polio in Nigeria have been yielding positive results. In 2013, a total of 53 cases were confirmed, marking a 50 per cent drop from 2012. In 2014, the case count had dropped down to six (Global polio Eradication Initiative). 

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Eradicating polio is our collective responsibility. Only by investing in long-term community initiatives, we will be able to achieve a polio free Africa. Read more on