Some years ago four countries across the globe were identified as battling to eradicate one disease. Like what condition the disease brought upon them, the countries bore the acronym PAIN- Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria. But when India finally stamped out the disease just about a year ago, the PAIN became PAN leaving Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
For decades, Poliomyelitis which is commonplace in tropical sub-Saharan countries has been a killer of young children between the ages of 0-5 years.
The campaign to bring an end to the malady in Nigeria has seen collaborations stretching backward in years involving the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other international agencies. Despite the seemingly vast efforts, the country is yet to effectively tackle the disease.
Polio as it is more commonly termed, is a killer disease cutting short the promising lives of young children in Nigeria by paralyzing either both or one of the legs.
In October 2011, tracking the immunization campaign got this blogger en route some local governments within Kano state along with a team of experts and government officials on polio eradication as part of a primary health development enterprise. Gezawa, Ungogo, and Kumbotso were the places visited. Even though yours truly is a daughter of the city, a whole new dimension awaited as the venture provided me with a whole new definition after the encounter we had with the people who live in the rural areas.
It was a mixed bag of an adventure for me as I got to learn albeit disappointedly that even as modern civilization and technology transfer has made information reach hitherto uncharted corners of the world through the commonest medium which is the radio set, some parents deliberately refuse to let their children to be immunized even as they only stand to benefit.
A fine reflection of the larger picture is that of Bashir Aliyu, a child of 3. He lays restless on his mat in his mother’s room in Unguwar Gabas, crying in anguish, entreating with his every body language for some sort of comforting gesture from the mother.
Big black pot of local spices
Her name is Malama Usaina, mother to four more of Aliyu’s siblings living together in Unguwar Gabas, Gezawa local government area. She was busy when I entered the house, as her posture suggested, sitting in front of a big pot making local spices out of locust beans (daddawa); the trade from which she earns a living. In my interaction with her after sympathizing with her about her son, I sought to know why in the face of the widespread campaign, she let her baby get affected polio? This is what she said to me: “My baby was given vaccination in every round of the mobilization exercises yet he is paralyzed with the disease.” I was dumbstruck. How could this happen if at all he received the vaccine as she claimed?!
My bid to solving the puzzle had me speaking with a state official on immunization in Kano state, Abdurrahman Yakubu who began by saying that the polio challenge is yet to be swept over successfully in Kano by reason of the vaccination officials not seeming to have the best of receptions wherever the task takes them. On the case of Bashir Ali, he said the vaccination his mother holds claim to is questionable either because the child could have been affected before the vaccination or the mother could have failed to take the child for vaccination as a baby.
Further, I met Aisha Ali, an immunization supervisor at the state level. She shared her experience of the polio exercise with me describing it as a hectic activity made no easier as she asserted that some individuals in some communities they go to voice all sorts of unpleasant remarks even to their hearing, underpinning the near-collective societal animosity to the exercise. Nigeria is one among the countries with the highest record in the number of polio disease and Kano state is a leading high risk area, made worse by the fact that certain communities in the state largely shun the exercise for reasons mainly fuelled by resistance to alleged negative machinations by the West.
Campaigns conducted against such beliefs have come a long way as district heads, ward heads as well as Islamic clerics also contribute in convincing the community to embrace the vaccination exercise. A focal officer at Gezawa made an interesting but quite thought provoking comment thus: “Women at home refuse or neglect giving out their children; they even hide them and say they are missing.” The non compliance that even takes the missing children hue almost got me out of my mind being that I thought I understood how such people go about avoiding the immunization exercise but that one was completely new on me.
The fuzzy picture got clearer when further ponderings revealed the so called missing children thread in most cases begins from when mothers take their children with them either to the clinic in the area for the purpose of having them immunized or simply to other places for different purposes. Being absent leaves the vaccinator marking them as missing children as prompted by what information is supplied by the individuals who bother to grant them audience. In addition, some parents choose not to give out their children claiming they have had them immunized before.
Amidst all that, what saddens me most is the recurring memory of Bashir Aliyu whose life will remain a crippled reality, a misfortune of a lesson for parents to learn to accept to immunize their children for a better tomorrow.