LAGOS – When I was a boy, growing up in Kano in northern Nigeria, my Koranic teacher was totally crippled from the waist down. A boy with whom I grew up could not use his legs. That was 50 years ago, and I did not know that it was polio. Such things were just a fact of life in Nigeria. At the time, I never imagined that all of this damage could have been prevented with an easily administered vaccination – that, had these people been immunized, they would have been spared paralysis.
In the six decades since the first polio vaccination was created, the disease has been eradicated in most countries around the world. Even countries facing significant obstacles – such as India, with a population of 1.2 billion people, rampant poverty, and inadequate infrastructure – have rid themselves of polio.
Nigeria is one of only three countries – along with Afghanistan and Pakistan – that remains blighted by polio. Kano is one of the few places in the world where three different strains of the disease were recorded in 2012.
But Nigeria is also one of Africa’s most developed countries. Moreover, it is the largest recipient of foreign direct investment in Africa, and thriving Nigerian businesses – such as my own – have begun to expand internationally. As a result, Nigeria will soon surpass South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy.
With economic success comes added responsibility. Nigerians cannot hope to lead Africa, economically or otherwise, while neglecting to eliminate preventable diseases like polio.
I am working with the Nigerian government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to take needed – and long-overdue – action to eradicate polio in the country. In Kano – which currently has one of the lowest routine immunization coverage rates in Nigeria, with less than 40% of children vaccinated – we are working to improve primary health care and expand the scope of routine immunization. We hope to reach 80% basic vaccine coverage by 2015.
Religious and community leaders across the country have already joined this crucial effort. Now state governments and officials should also seize this opportunity and help to ensure that this essential health service is delivered to all children.
Vaccine providers need support, supervision, and the right incentives to ensure that they perform as expected. Too often, not all children in a single household are vaccinated. With better mapping of missed settlements, a more stable supply of vaccine, and improved distribution systems, such oversights would be avoided, and more children could be reached.
Vaccination is one of the best investments a country can make. Provided adequate funding, solid infrastructure, and genuine commitment from the country’s leaders, every child in Nigeria could be immunized against a range of diseases.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is determined to eradicate polio in my hometown and throughout the country. With enough support from international partners, Nigerians can finally achieve this goal.