By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
ABUJA, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Two years after Nigerian militant group Boko Haram attacked his hometown of Gwoza – killing men and burning down houses – Ali Bello feared the worst when he received a panicked message from his wife.
The rickshaw driver – who works in the nearby town of Mubi in northeast Nigeria – raced home to find that their five-year-old son had been rushed to hospital after falling severely ill.
“When they told me the boy had polio, I did not believe it,” Bello told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“Some people in Gwoza … are afraid,” he said. “They have been telling their children not to go to our house.”
Nigeria was stunned in August when two cases of children being struck by polio were reported in Borno state – Boko Haram’s former stronghold – after two years in which the country, and the continent, had appeared free of the disease.
Two more cases have since been recorded by the Nigerian government, but health officials fear many more could come to light. Experts estimate that for every case of polio that paralyses its victim, 200 silent infections go undetected.
The virus, which can cause irreversible paralysis within hours, spreads rapidly among children, especially in unsanitary conditions in war-torn regions, where healthcare is limited.
Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state has disrupted health services across Nigeria’s northeast and hampered efforts to get vaccines to children at risk.
While father-of-eight Bello’s older children received polio vaccinations many years ago, he said the younger ones had missed out due to the instability caused by the Islamist group.
And as fighting between the militants and the Nigerian army forces people to flee their homes, aid agencies are concerned that the virus could spread to neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon, and nearby Central African Republic.
Nigeria and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are strengthening surveillance systems, while a drive was launched by the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) last month to vaccinate more than 41 million children in West Africa’s Lake Chad region.
But health workers in Nigeria must contend not only with fear of the virus itself, but also suspicion of the vaccine.
Some religious leaders in northern Nigeria openly oppose polio vaccination, saying it is a conspiracy against Muslim children and that the vaccines could cause infertility and AIDS.
In 2013, gunmen on motorbikes killed nine health workers delivering vaccines in two separate attacks in the city of Kano.
Yet Nigeria’s health minister, Isaac Adewole, said misconceptions about the vaccines were “a problem of the past”.
The health ministry has tried to improve the uptake of polio vaccines by working with religious and community leaders, and by ensuring that children who are vaccinated receive incentives like sweets and milk, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
To reach areas of the northeast that are still unstable due to Boko Haram, local vigilantes accompany the health workers.
“They are armed, but look like normal people so they don’t scare anyone,” Adewole said, adding that using military escorts in the past had frightened local communities.
While the recent polio cases in Nigeria have cast a shadow over global eradication hopes – Afghanistan and Pakistan are the two countries where the virus remains endemic – Adewole is confident that his nation will be free of polio by next year.
In Gwoza, Bello and his wife are just hoping that their son – who has not been able to walk despite three months of treatment – will be able to get back on his feet again soon.
“The child cannot walk. Whenever he goes out, he goes with his mother. She carries him on her back, but they can’t go far.” (Reporting by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Writing by Kieran Guilbert Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)