• Saturday, April 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

Polio undefeated as banditry denies children vaccine access

Insecurity threatening eradication of re-emerging polio variants – FG

…over 60 Katsina health centres shut

Nigerian children trapped in insecure communities within the North-West states are facing a widening gap in vaccine coverage as escalating banditry exposes them to polio paralysis and other preventable diseases.

Routine immunisation programmes freely available at primary healthcare centres have been disrupted in these zones, with clinics shutting down from fear of kidnapping and killing of health workers, BusinessDay learned.

In Katsina, over 60 primary health centres have been shut, a healthcare expert who did not want to be identified told BusinessDay, saying viruses are spreading fast, with cases of transmission isolated within those communities to a point where serious complications set in.

“Somebody might be killed when kidnapped if ransom is not paid. So a lot of facilities are closed because of insecurity in this zone. Even when plans are made to vaccinate children, more especially during the immunization for polio, they fail and these diseases continue to affect them,” the senior health worker said at a training programme for health workers and social media influencers, among others, by the Pediatric Association of Nigeria (PAN) and the International Pediatric Association (IPA).

Nigeria has not reported a case of wild poliovirus since 2014 and was declared free of it in 2020. But the country continues to struggle with circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV), particularly type 2 (cVDPV2).

In 2023, 81 cases were reported, mainly concentrated in three northwestern states – Kebbi, Sokoto, and Zamfara.

“So once the mother realises that there is paralysis, either of limb or leg, she will go to a facility and report. So we pick these cases from there and they proved that there is presence of circulating poliovirus in those communities,” the officer said.

This also coincides with the country’s struggle with zero-vaccination, which has seen about 50 percent of children below age five unvaccinated, according to the United Nations statistics.

Just one in five children is zero-dose or unvaccinated worldwide.

However, there are about 2.3 million zero-dose children in Nigeria which the government is targeting with immunisation schemes, Muyi Aina, executive director, National Primary Health Care Development Agency, told BusinessDay recently.

With the diphtheria outbreak, for instance, the North-West health officer said that while counteracting efforts to make the vaccine available has been effective for children aged five to 14, it has left out those above 14 who also constitute a significant majority of children dying, and suffering severe complications from diphtheria infections.

At the national level, the uptake of vaccines is still deficient and PAN has called out parents over the growing decline.

Ekanem Ekure, PAN’s president, identified parents’ hesitancy as the biggest challenge facing immunisation efforts in the country, noting that it is largely fuelled by misinformation peddled on social media platforms.

About 75 percent of the vaccines listed in the national immunisation programme are not received despite being offered free, Ekure said.

She said the decline in vaccination often takes off following the discharge of babies from the hospital, affecting doses that should be received from six weeks of age, against diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis, and septicemia.

“The average vaccination rate for Nigeria is about 57 percent. With most families struggling to feed, they cannot afford any major illness in any family member,” Ekure said.

“However, many of these illnesses are preventable with immunisations, be it diarrhea, cough, TB, polio, diphtheria, meningitis, tetanus, and now cervical cancer. The good news is that these vaccines are effective and safe for more than several decades.”

To tackle the menace of misinformation overriding parents’ decisions and robbing children of ample health benefits, the PAN and IPA training drew participants — three participants each from the 36 states of Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory.

The immunisation advocates are expected to enhance vaccine awareness, drive demand for vaccines from families, promote dissemination of the correct information about vaccines, and respond to negative views of society about vaccines.

Naveen Thacker, president of the International Pediatric Association, said the body was ready to support immunisation advocacy in the country to achieve increased uptake.

He said similar projects have been executed in other countries, where it was observed that immunisation advocates need to be convinced and have correct information to combat misinformation.

“We will go to the regional level also where we have the best of the experts from around the world and Nigeria to discuss all these evidence-based techniques for dealing with and promoting vaccination. And we are very happy to be here,” Thacker said.