History was written on Tuesday, 25 August 2020, when Africa was declared free from polio by the World Health Organisation (WHO), marking a significant milestone in the fight against infectious diseases on the continent.
For a viral disease which has paralysed thousands of children for the past 25-years, the announcement by Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC), the independent body mandated by the WHO to certify the Africa Region to have eradicated poliovirus, gives a ray hope to future generations and fuelling their ambitions.
Polio is transmitted from person to person mainly through contaminated water leading to a breakdown of the nervous system. With no cure for the virus, the disease can be prevented through the administration of polio vaccine to protect children usually below five years against infection.
Despite significant strides made in the control of the disease around the continent over the past years, it was the opposite in Nigeria. The country of over 200-million persons remained the only one in Africa where Polio was endemic, largely due to resistance from religious leaders in the northern part of the country who were against western interference in local affairs and claimed that the vaccine was unsafe.
According to a WHO report, Nigeria accounted for more than 50 per cent of the global polio cases, forcing the Government to embark on a vigorous campaign to eradicate the deadly virus.
The campaign was led by the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), headed by Dr Faisal Shuaib, who serves as Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer. A graduate of the famous Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, he also boasts of a Doctor of Public Health degree from the University of Alabama in Birmingham USA, where he graduated with distinction.
Prior to his appointment by Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, in January 2017, he was a Senior Programme Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) in Seattle, USA and was charged with the responsibility of developing and implementing strategies on polio outbreak response activities including ensuring certification standard surveillance for Acute Flaccid Paralysis in Africa.
A no stranger to the eradication of diseases, Dr Shuaib served as the Incident Manager/Head of the Nigeria Ebola Emergency Operation Centre during the July – October 2014 outbreak of Ebola Virus.
In this position, he coordinated a team of over 1,000 health workers and volunteers across the country in response to the outbreak. Together with his team, they rolled out a successful scientific campaign to contain the spread of the Ebola virus across the country, and eventually eradication where Nigeria was declared Ebola free.
Upon assuming the role of Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of NPHCDA, coupled with the support of the Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom, they deployed geospatial technology in the vaccination process especially in the heavily affected Northern parts of Nigeria, with the involvement of local authorities and the use of GIS-based maps from the Geo-Referenced Infrastructure and Demographic Data for Development (GRID3) programme, which enhances the ability of frontline healthcare workers to accurately identify settlements and track children below five years to be immunised with polio vaccines.
He also instigated collaboration with all partners whilst appealing to parents to visit health facilities across the country to ensure the clean health bill as over 50 million children were vaccinated the past few years.
After four years without a case and with over 95 per cent of Africa’s population having been vaccinated, one of the conditions of the ARCC, Africa has been declared wild polio free.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO said: “Big day for my African brothers & sisters. This is one of the greatest public health achievements, demonstrating that with science & solidarity we can beat viruses and save lives”.
This marks the second time in history that a virus has been eradicated from Africa, since smallpox 40 years ago.
“I recall that shortly after assuming office in May 2015, I made a pledge to Nigerians that I would not bequeath a polio-endemic country to my successor. Today’s certification of our Wild Polio-Free status is in fulfillment of that pledge to not only Nigerians, but to all Africans.
“We must guard this achievement of the eradication of Wild Polio Virus in Africa jealously and ensure that we take all necessary steps to prevent a resurgence of this disease,” said President Buhari.
For supervising the drive that finally led to the farewell of polio on the continent, Dr Shuaib is “thrilled to be part of this momentous day in the life of all Nigerians. Through an incredible journey of hope, setbacks and triumph, we are finally certified as Polio-free today.
“What we achieved together, will echo through prosperity and resonate with future generations of Nigerians, as an amazing symbol of our grit and tenacity as a people. My heartfelt gratitude goes to all the heroes and heroines of the polio eradication war.”
This achievement signifies a feather in the cap of the former staff of the WHO, Nigeria’s Ministry of Health, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has authored and co-authored over 60 peer reviewed scientific publications, and is also a reviewer for a number of scientific journals.