Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremists hamper polio eradication

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) – Extremists made Imana Alhaji Gana’s village in northeastern Nigeria too dangerous for health workers to vaccinate against polio. Now that she and her family have fled to a displacement camp, those workers want to catch her children in time.

Here in the camps housing thousands of families seeking safety from the extremists, health teams are going from tent to tent, inoculating youngsters against the disease that withers limbs and disables children for life.

At first, Gana is afraid to let the outreach workers vaccinate her baby. Eventually they persuade her that the three-week-old child is not too young for immunisation, which can take place as early as the day of birth.

The complicated fight against polio is yet another way the Nigeria-based extremist group Boko Haram has disrupted life in the northeast, leaving children vulnerable to an entirely preventable disease.

“When such children come to the camps or host communities they become a threat to other children,” said Almai Some, the field coordinator in Borno state for the vaccination campaign run by Rotary.

A health official administers polio vaccine to children at a camp for people displaced by extremists in Maiduguri, Nigeria. – AP

Some of the families arriving are from areas where polio vaccinators have not been able to visit for as long as six years.

Boko Haram’s insurgency began in Maiduguri, Borno state’s capital, but its reach has expanded beyond Nigeria’s borders to neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Its violence has proved to be a major setback to the international campaign against polio.

Nigeria is one of just three countries where polio is endemic and has not been eliminated, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan. The final phase to wipe out polio is “proving to be extraordinarily difficult” because “the poliovirus is surviving despite all the good work and in the face of everything that is being thrown at it,” said a WHO-appointed monitoring group at the end of last year.

In Nigeria, there is little or no surveillance data in Borno state, and “unless there is a breakthrough to reach those areas in Borno, the entire polio (eradication) programme is at risk,” said the monitoring group. Nigeria had other outbreaks last year including cholera, hepatitis, monkeypox, Lassa and yellow fevers, showing the challenges to the country’s health care system. Globally, the campaign to eradicate polio has been faced with outbreaks last year in non-endemic countries like Congo and Syria.

The World Health Organization (WHO) had declared Nigeria polio free in September 2015 after it went a year without any new cases. But in 2016 — after two years with no cases — fresh polio cases broke out in three locations in Borno state. No new cases were reported in Nigeria in 2017 or so far this year.