Hajiya Rabi, also known as Auntie, shared softly that there were no more young children in Gwammaja Ward (in Kano, Nigeria) crippled by polio. Like others we would come to meet during our return trip to the country, she was very proud of the progress she and the other health workers had made in trying to reach every child with polio drops and other immunizations.
My first real view into the polio program in Nigeria came 16 months ago. Bill Gates was visiting to help energize a range of political, religious, and traditional leaders in the fight against the crippling disease. At that time, Nigeria was still trying to get back on track after questions about vaccine safety stopped the program and caused massive outbreaks.
There was a marked difference in the mood between the first trip and this second one, in June 2010. In a year, Nigeria has gone from more than 300 polio cases to 3 over the same time period. Every meeting we held reinforced the belief that the country can achieve the Abuja Commitments for polio eradication, routine immunization, and primary health care. These were signed by the country’s governors on February 2, 2009, during a meeting with Bill Gates.
During this year’s meetings, everyone seemed buoyed by Bill Gates’ second visit, and by what had been achieved. It’s clear that the work of key leaders needs to pave the way for the work on the ground, but to me it’s the people like Auntie who can truly make the difference between life and death for young children in these poor places. Auntie is actually a mother of 11 and a grandmother, too. Her children and children’s children were healthy and educated, and she wanted the same for every child in her ward. It is the people like Auntie who make sure that children receive lifesaving vaccines and other health products like bed nets, vitamin A, and even soap.
The progress against polio in Nigeria is fragile. Governmental, religious, and traditional leaders all need to continue the hard work that they’ve started. Business leaders need to reinforce polio and other health issues as a priority. Rotarians need to maintain their work monitoring up to eight immunization rounds a year. Much more needs to be done at every level.
But I am comforted by the fact that people like Auntie are working tirelessly to ensure that each child, each family, each community, will be free from polio. She and the other unsung heroes in Nigeria give us hope that the country is on a path to something incredible.