But today, there is still much work to do in order to eradicate the disease, particularly in the three remaining countries where it’s still endemic – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. The murder of health workers delivering polio drops in Pakistan has been widely reported in the media, but the struggles faced by health professionals in Nigeria have been less well covered.
In 2012, Nigeria saw cases of polio reach a three-year high, with more than 100 infections of the disease reported. This worrying rise has happened despite significant amounts of money being spent over the last few years on widespread immunisation programmes in Nigeria – see 'Polio campaign and new vaccine bring hope to Nigeria and the world'.
While these programmes have been successful in some regions of northern Nigeria, there are pockets where the disease remains in several states. This is because there is still suspicion among many Muslim parents (as in Pakistan), that polio vaccine drops are some kind of western plot to harm or sterilise Muslim children. Speaking to the BBC, one health worker in northern Nigeria explained that this suspicion is leading parents not to have their children vaccinated. Therefore, even if there are periods when no polio cases appear, with some children unprotected, “it begins to show its face again”.
The health worker explains to the BBC’s reporter that she has to open a box of polio vaccines and give them to her own children first in order to demonstrate they’re safe to local parents. Even so, some parents still refuse to let their children have the vaccine. And in remote regions, children can simply be missed from vaccination programmes.
However, Nigerian health officials are determined to keep plugging away at polio eradication measures. Local staff who are believed to be ineffective in carrying out polio campaigns are being fired and the support of key local leaders is being sought in areas where people remain suspicious of immunisations. The country is even using satellite tracking to detect settlements where children might have been missed.
Speaking to the BBC, Nigeria’s health minister affirmed that with all the continuing efforts, eradicating polio in Nigeria is “do-able”. He added that he felt the task would be instrumental in whether his time in office was considered successful and said that if other countries could eradicate polio, “we can do it in Nigeria”.