By: Idara Udoh, Nigerian Red Cross Society and Zena Awad, Swedish Red Cross
For the past two decades, Nigeria has been pursuing the eradication of polio. About 15 years ago, the perception around the world was that Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, would be the last country to eradicate polio. Today, Nigeria has successfully reached zero cases of polio, and, in 2015, the World Health Organization announced the paralyzing disease was no longer endemic in the country.
In an effort to maintain zero polio cases in Nigeria, the Swedish Red Cross, through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), has been supporting the Nigerian Red Cross Society in raising awareness on the importance of polio vaccinations in Dambatta, Bebeji and Ungogo local government areas of Kano State. A total of 100 Red Cross volunteers have been trained and mobilized to encourage parents to ensure the vaccination of all children under the age of five with the oral polio vaccine. This is coupled with intensified house-to-house health education in the communities, where the volunteers visit homes and schools three times a week. They register children under the age of five, mark the fingers of those children who had been vaccinated, and trace those who had been missed.
“When we get to the household, the female volunteers enter the house and educate the women on the importance of polio vaccinations,” said Bello Inuwa, a 32 year old Red Cross volunteer from Dambatta East. “We count the under-five children in the house, check their fingers and select the children whose fingers were not marked for vaccination.”
Resistance to vaccinations persists
Although there is now wide acceptance and uptake of the oral polio vaccine by caregivers, there were still challenges and issues of non-compliance. However, through advocacy and the use of community-based volunteers, many rumours were debunked and the caregivers, who had confidence in the volunteers, allowed their wards to be immunized. “Before now, we believed that the polio vaccine would make our children barren in the future, but my sister in-law, who is a volunteer with the Red Cross, convinced me to immunize my child, that the vaccine is harmless. I believe her because she would not harm her nephew,” said Rakiya Abba, a 28 year old mother of two.
“We like what the Red Cross is doing. Because of this programme, we have not recorded any case of polio in our community in the last 18 months. But our children are still sick of malaria and other diseases. The Red Cross should also treat us for malaria and typhoid, and teach us how to prevent other diseases,” she added.
The Red Cross volunteers, once equipped with knowledge on other health-related issues, can be a good resource for communities. The work of the volunteers is indeed very crucial in supporting routine immunizations and increasing health promotion messages. The Nigerian Red Cross Society is considering implementing an integrated health programme using a community-based approach in the coming years.
As recently as 2012, Nigeria accounted for half of all polio cases worldwide. Due to intense efforts, it has not reported a case of wild poliovirus since July 2014. Polio remains endemic in only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan.