The Ebola outbreak in several countries of West Africa offers a stark reminder of the importance of investing in health systems and infrastructures before health emergencies strike, as well as the persistent nature of the most challenging diseases. The program established to help eradicate one of these diseases – polio – is currently offering vital support to the Ebola outbreak response, in terms of surveillance, tracing people with whom patients have had contact, implementing preparedness planning, training of health workers, and providing health communications to the public. While polio infrastructure can play an important part in addressing health emergencies like the Ebola outbreak, we also need to remain focused on the goal of ending polio, itself, on the African continent.
Dramatic progress has been made in the global effort to eradicate polio, with polio cases decreasing by 99% since 1988. These gains are thanks, in significant part, to the efforts of UN agencies such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, governments and many other partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
Nigeria, one of the countries recently affected by Ebola, is the only country in Africa where polio remains endemic and one of only three endemic countries in the world, along with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent years, Nigeria’s polio program has proven its effectiveness; thanks to the local, state and federal leadership involved in the program, as well as the engagement of traditional and religious leaders, polio has declined dramatically in Nigeria. The country has reported only 6 cases of polio in two states so far in 2014, compared to 48 cases in 9 states for the same period in 2013 – a reduction of over 85 percent. More than 75 percent of all children in the eight northern Nigerian states have received at least three doses of oral polio vaccine. These gains directly support Nigeria’s ambitious “Saving One Million Lives” initiative, and they are a testament to the progress that has been made on polio.
I recall visiting Nigeria in 2010, at which point I met with several prominent government, religious, traditional, and civil society leaders. Their commitment to ending polio in their country was clear, and they have delivered on that commitment in the intervening years.
But a strong polio program – even one that can help fight the spread of other diseases like Ebola – cannot afford to let down its guard for a moment. While Nigeria’s progress on polio is commendable, it is also fragile. It will be critical to sustain momentum in the coming six months, but with presidential and state-level elections coming up next February, there is reason to be concerned about a decline in high-level oversight at the state and local government levels. Nigeria cannot hope to reach the ultimate goal of ending polio without expediting the release of domestic resources that have been committed, and without appropriate oversight and accountability for polio eradication activities by government leaders, in partnership with traditional and religious leaders.
It is encouraging to see the way that existing health efforts like the global polio eradication program can be leveraged to fight a crisis like Ebola. This is one of the great and lasting benefits of putting this type of infrastructure into place. But we cannot praise the legacy of the polio program until it finishes the job it set out to do. To accomplish this goal, Nigeria must not lose focus or momentum in its fight against polio. The country can, and I believe will, succeed in eliminating polio and therefore play a critical role in delivering a polio-free Africa for all children. However, in order to make this a reality, Nigerian leaders must not allow complacency or distraction to hinder the polio eradication effort, particularly as the 2015 elections approach. Rather, Nigerian leaders must double-down on their commitment to making polio a thing of the past. Achieving the historic goal of a polio-free Africa now depends on success in Nigeria.
Mr. Ted Turner, Founder and Chairman of the United Nations Foundation, Chairman of Turner Enterprises, Inc and Founder of CNN contributed this piece on the progress made so far in polio eradication and child survival in Nigeria.