Polio or Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious viral disease that largely affects children under 5 years of age. The virus is transmitted by person-to-person spread mainly through the faecal-oral route or, less frequently, by a common vehicle (e.g. contaminated water or food) and multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system and cause paralysis.
On August 25, 2020, the Independent Africa Regional Certification Commission certified Africa free of the wild poliovirus. This feat was achieved 24 years after African Heads of State committed to eradicating polio during the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union) in Yaounde, Cameroon.
Nigeria is the last African country among the 47 countries in the WHO African region to be certified polio-free having recorded four cases of the virus in the war-raged Borno State in 2016.
In light of this exciting news, some survivors of polio say though they are glad Nigeria is now polio-free, they are sad about their deformities. They share their struggles with PUNCH.
Haruna Yusuf is a polio survivor and a shoe cobbler at Gombe Market, Gombe State. He had experienced tough times because of his condition but refused to give up on life having learnt he was affected by polio at age three.
Yusuf, 34, holds a Diploma in Social Development from the College of Administrative and Business Studies, Potiskum, Yobe State.
Narrating his ordeal to PUNCH at his workshop located at ‘Baban Kasuwa’ (the big market), Yusuf said life threw him several challenges which he converted to opportunities to forge ahead in life. He stated,
“I was born in 1986. I am from Pantami, Gombe State. My parents said I never took any vaccine when I was born as a normal child without any medical issues that could make me become a person living with disabilities.
“My parents told me that I was three years old when polio affected me. They said it started with a headache and they took me to see a traditional doctor for treatment without knowing it was polio. I attended Mallam Kure Primary School, Pantami, and Gombe Secondary School in 1991.
In 1996, I used to travel to the East for business. I used to buy palm oil to sell. I also bought materials for making bags and for fetching water in wells. My parents sent me to school but later stopped sponsoring my education and I started business when I stopped schooling in JSS2. It was later I tried to secure admission to the College of Administrative and Business Studies.”
Unlike some polio survivors who eke out a living through begging for alms, Yusuf said he detested begging and hated the idea of being a burden to family or friends. Yusuf added,
“I repair and make new shoes. I started the business in 1999. I started the business with N5, 000. Before I used to make between N2, 000 and N3, 000 daily but now I make between N3, 000 and N5, 000 daily. Some people will tell someone with disabilities to beg to survive. But my father told me it was better to be educated, save some money and start a business. I listened to him and here I am today.
Immediately I stopped attending school, I started a business by travelling to Onitsha to buy goods but one day, my father advised me to start my own business to fully support myself. When I was going to school I had no one to help me.
I paid for school fees myself and continued with my business. I was in business before I returned to school to study for a Diploma in Social Development. I gained admission in 1996 and graduated in 1998 before I started making shoes.”
The father-of-7 added that life had not been a bed of roses for him, thus he decided to pull himself together to make headway in life. He said,
“I am happy with the news that polio has been eradicated in Nigeria. My wife is not a polio survivor. I made sure that my children were given vaccines to forestall polio. It amazes some people whenever they see my condition yet I have a business I run. I don’t just sit at home or beg to survive.”
SEE ALSO: GOOD NEWS: Africa Is Polio Free!
Polio survivors’ tales of woes
When PUNCH correspondent arrived in the local government office of persons living with disabilities located around Tundun Wada, Gombe State, members were seen sleeping on the floor before Binta Idi, a 39-year-old widow, and women leader of people living with disabilities in the state rode in with her hand-peddled special bicycle.
The mother-of-6 said she was into farming but had stopped for now. She said,
“I am a polio victim. It happened when I was 14 months old just about to start walking. I had a fever and when I became well, I was unable to sit.
“When I was still in secondary school, babies used to climb my back to play. I felt angry and decided to drop out of school. It was in Government Secondary School, Nafada then. My late husband was not a polio survivor. My parents were unhappy when they realised that I was unable to do what my mates were doing.
My father sold his farm produce to take me to a traditional hospital and also to the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital for treatment. I underwent physiotherapy before I was even able to move my legs. As a mother, I made sure my children were vaccinated against the polio virus.’’
She stated that she bought her special bicycle for N17, 000 six years ago from someone, adding that she found it hard to believe that Nigeria had interrupted wild polio considering what she and other victims experienced. Idi said,
“Government should employ us as ambassadors to encourage mothers to take immunisation seriously now. We don’t have a major person to speak for us ideally.’’
37-year-old Babangida Kundulum, Secretary, Gombe Local Government Association of Disabled Persons, said he had seen life from a harsh perspective.
Saying his wife is also living with disabilities, Kundulum noted that he met her during one of the workshops organised for visually impaired persons and those who couldn’t walk. He stated,
“I started my education at Kundulum Primary School where I was a pupil from 1990 to 1996. When I left there, I got admitted into a secondary school but because of the distance and financial difficulty, I could not proceed.
“I took another examination the following year, I was admitted into the Government Art Secondary School but financial issues once again proved to be a stumbling block. It was in 1999 that the headmaster of the primary school I attended bought a uniform for me and enrolled me at the Government Arabic Secondary School, formerly Arabic Teachers’ College.
“I left secondary school in 2005 but due to poor O’level results, I could not proceed to any higher institutions at the time. I took the West African Senior School Certificate Examination about five times and the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination thrice before I finally secured admission to the Federal College of Education (Technical), Gombe State, to study Business Education and Accounting. Presently, I work with the Gombe State Water Board as a pump operator.”
He said he became a victim of polio at age three, adding that he had suffered different forms of stigmatisation. Kundulum said,
“I was three years old when I lost the ability to walk as a result of polio. My parents went everywhere in search of a solution without any luck. Due to their poor education, they feared that my condition was caused by spiritual forces.
Instead of taking me to hospital, they took me to spiritual homes and approached mallams for help. They wasted a lot of money in the process. In fact, they had to sell their livestock to raise the money for that. It was sad.
“I got the bicycle which I use till today in 1997 through the wife of the first military administrator of Gombe State, Mrs Florence Orji. My headmaster (Mallam Garuba Jauro) wrote a letter to the Ministry of Women Affairs then to sponsor my education.
One day I was called to take a wheelchair, so instead of sponsoring my education, they gave me a means of movement. It affected me in several ways. At the age of three when my mates had begun the journey of their lives, I was only able to watch them in agony because I couldn’t walk. The condition deprived me memorable experiences of childhood.’’
He added that about four years ago he had a girlfriend but her friends and family advised her to leave him because of his condition. Kundulum further said,
“She always told me about their perception of me, and unfortunately she broke up with me. She is now married to someone else. While I was at the FCT (Technical), I had a lecturer who deliberately held his classes on the third floor.
On one occasion, his colleague asked him to consider my condition and move the lecture to the ground floor. But he refused, insisting that it was not a special school. I did not bother about that because what I wanted was to get knowledge and good grades. Unfortunately, the situation led me to have a carryover.”
He also said that in seeking employment, most times, people would think he came to beg for alms because of his condition. He added,
“It is the same experience in the market where traders think that anybody living with disabilities is there to beg for alms. This makes me sad a lot.”
Expressing excitement over the disruption of wild poliovirus in Nigeria, Kundulum called on the government to focus more on survivors.
“Yes, I heard that polio has been eradicated in Nigeria. I commend the Federal Government and stakeholders through whom the feat was reaslied.
People living with disabilities in Nigeria encounter lots of challenges in terms of education, health and employment. I urge the government both at the state and federal levels to establish agencies for the benefit of persons with disabilities.’’
Munira Ibrahim became a polio victim at seven months and now she’s a graduate but has no job. She added that employers and suitors have not been forthcoming because of her condition. She said,
“I am 23 years old. I wasn’t even up to a year old when I was affected by polio; I was seven-month-old then. I attended primary and secondary school at Ilimi International. I am also a graduate of Gombe State University. I studied Biological Sciences but I am currently unemployed. I thank God that my parents have been helpful. I do NGO work alongside. I also have been stigmatised several times.
“Some people look at me as if I am nothing. I was not immunised when I was born in Gombe. I was discriminated against by some people when I was going to school. I had lots of admirers but none has ended in marriage. There are several painful experiences regarding that.’’
She also expressed joy that polio virus had been disrupted, urging the government to come to the aid of survivors to wade through life.
Usman Adamu is a polio survivor but took a vaccine against the virus when he was young. He said in spite of his trying to be educated, he still begs for survival.
Adamu added that he had been recording low returns from begging since the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, noting that he survives on between N400 and N500 daily proceeds from begging for alms. He said,
“I am 25 years old. I got polio when I was seven years old. I beg for alms to get educated. I am currently in second year at FCE, Gombe. I was preparing for teaching practice before COVID-19 came.”
Adamu added that he was happy at the disruption of wild poliovirus in Nigeria, stressing that the news was cheering.
“I agree that polio has been eradicated in Nigeria but of a fact, I was immunised as a child. In fact, I have the certificate in my house. My parents were sad when they were told that I would remain paralysed,”
More moving tales
56-year-old Jao Abdullahi is the chief of physically challenged persons in Gombe State. Abdullahi, said unlike some of his colleagues who beg to survive, he works with the state social welfare.
According to him, the government should intensify efforts in addressing the various challenges of polio survivors. He added,
“I was born in 1956. I was three years old when I got polio. I attended about three schools; a religious school (Arabic school/almajiri), Mariri Vocational Centre; a rehabilitation centre for persons with disabilities and an adult education programme. I have a wife and six children and none of them has polio. I am a petty businessman. I have been working for 20 years now.”
Abdullahi who received the news of the interruption of wild poliovirus in Nigeria with joy, said he wished he was vaccinated as a child.
“The World Health Organisation has said it and I am happy that polio has been eradicated. I urge the government to see to it that this new committee work from the federal to state level to ensure the sustenance of the rating.
Whenever government wants to assist persons living with disabilities, they should consider both the educated and non-educated. They shouldn’t only consider the educated, we are all different and with different challenges,”
30-year-old Muhammad Sale was two years old when he had polio. He could, however, walk but with discomfort.
He stated that he discovered he was a polio victim about 28 years ago. Sale said,
“My parents were sad and did all they could having discovered my condition. They took me to traditional doctors and hospitals. My parents wondered how it happened. My older sibling is deaf so this made them more sad. I am 30 years old now and still use a stick to walk.”
Sale added that he paid his tuition fees through begging for alms when there was no one to help. He said,
“I attended Abubakar Tatari Ali Polytechnic, Bauchi State and graduated in 2016. I studied Public Administration. I am currently unemployed but I beg to survive. In a way, we can say the government has tried but it needs to do more. The government should help persons with disabilities with employment and empowerment.”
45-year-old Haruna Sale, a polio victim from Gombe Local Government and a father of six, also survives through begging.
Sale said he makes N700 daily since the COVID-19 pandemic unlike when he earned N2, 000 daily. He said,
“I have six children and one wife. She is also a polio victim. I was seven years old when I became a victim. I wasn’t vaccinated according to my parents.
My condition makes them sad but there’s nothing they can do. I didn’t attend a formal school, I only attended Arabic school known as almajiri. N2,000 is what I used to feed my family daily but now I make between N600 and N700 begging for alms daily.
“It’s a good news that polio has been eradicated. I plead with the government to do more than it is doing for we are suffering. Every polio victim is suffering.”
Abdullahi Zakaria is the Chairman, Gombe Local Government Association of Persons Living with Disabilities. The 55-year-old father of 11 children said he also begs for alms to survive. He said,
“I used to enter train from Gombe to Garuwa, from Garuwa to Gandri and from Gandri to Yaounde, Cameroon to beg. It was in Yaounde I bought my special bicycle for N6,000. I don’t go that far to beg again due to age. I only beg within Gombe State.
“I have one wife but she is not a polio survivor. I was born in Malleri town, Kwami Local Government Area. When I was at Malleri I was fine but I became a polio victim at age eight. I was not immunised at birth.
“I am sad over my situation because when they established a primary school at Malleri I wanted to attend but they didn’t allow me, saying I was physically challenged. I was a child then but I cried.”
He added that when he started sneaking into the school to learn, a teacher told him to tell his parents to enroll him.
According to him, the teacher was unhappy because efforts to ensure that he was enrolled in school proved abortive.
“My father scolded me all the time. But when he realised that I wouldn’t stop in my desire to go to school, he took me to an almajiri school. After that, I joined Arabic College i.e higher islamic school.
“I’m supposed to have a job as the chairman but now I do nothing except begging. My members are up to 145 in the local government. What I get from begging is not actually enough to feed my 11 children,”
Zakaria, who commended the disruption of poliovirus in Nigeria, urged the government to sustain the status. He said,
“I am urging the government to sustain the polio-free status.”
The wild poliovirus
A Consultant Paediatrician at the Federal Teaching Hospital Gombe, Dr Adamu Girbo, said polio was common among children less than five years. He said,
“Polio, or polio myelitis is an infectious disease caused by a virus called polio virus. It is most common in children less than five years. The disease is acquired through feco-oral route, that is through faecal contamination of water and food.
“It gets into the body through the intestines to infect the nervous system. It destroys a particular nerve cell in the spinal cord resulting in paralysis, loss of muscle mass overtime and limb deformities.”
Also speaking, a professor of immunology, Idris Mohammed, is the current Chairman of COVID-19 in Gombe. He was appointed Chairman, National Programme on Immunisation between 1999 and 2004 during the administration of former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
He said it was during his tenure that some states in Nigeria rejected polio immunisation. Mohammed said,
”I was at the centre of the problem particularly in Kano and Zamfara states. They were the ones who started it. I had to take the entire board of the NPI to those states as well as to Sokoto State to convince the people. This was before the National Programme on Immunisation was merged with the National Health Care Development Agency. We were in charge of immunisations in Nigeria at the time.
During my time, we established the polio certification committee headed by Prof Oyewalè Tomori, a member of the WHO immunisation committee for more than 20 years now. Tomori is the most experienced immunisation expert in Nigeria.”
He also appreciated efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation towards the eradication of polio in Nigeria, including efforts of some people such as Aliko Dangote.
On his part, a famous virologist, Prof Oyewale Tomori, identified incomplete dosage of vaccine as one of the reasons why some polio victims had paralysis after immunisation.
“There are three types of polioviruses. They are; Polio1, Polio 2 and Polio 3. Each of these can cause the disease, so the ideal thing is to have multiple doses of the triple oral polio vaccine.
Some of the reasons for non-protection after vaccination include receiving incomplete number of vaccine doses, impotent vaccine or inability of the recipient to develop adequate immunity. Under these conditions, one can get infected and come down with paralysis.”
Tomori noted that WHO said Africa had successfully interrupted the transmission of wild poliovirus.
Sustaining the current WHO rating
“Under some of the conditions given above for the inability to develop adequate immunity for protection and with wild poliovirus still circulating in two countries of the world, we must continue to vaccinate our children so that they can develop immunity and therefore be protected from any imported wild poliovirus.
“There is no more transmission of wild poliovirus in Nigeria. But as stated above, we will continue to vaccinate our children until every country in the world successfully interrupts the transmission of wild poliovirus.”
He added that insecurity was responsible for Nigeria’s inability to achieve a polio-free status some years ago.
“These cases were in children located in the security compromised areas of Nigeria, where it was difficult to provide vaccination to the children. Therefore, we intensified our efforts to reach the inaccessible parts of the country and ensured that the children under siege received appropriate vaccination. The partner assistance and support played an important role in Nigeria achieving the interruption of transmission of wild polio virus,”
Mohammed also urged the government to ensure routine immunisation. He said,
“The Nigerian government should now pay attention to routine immunisation so that we can attain what we were set to attain in 1972 that is eight per cent coverage throughout the country.
“The Federal Government has said it would focus attention on making sure that there is no revival of polio. It is important to put mechanisms in place to ensure that polio does not return to Nigeria. Also, they will pay greater attention now to acceptance of routine immunisation against child killer diseases, such as tetanus, tuberculosis and measles.
“Routine immunisation should be accepted by every Nigerian for the health benefit of our children because that is the country’s future. I know there is still some resistance in some states but that is something that must be addressed so that it should be removed.
“Every child deserves to be immunised not just against polio but against all the WHO vaccine preventable diseases. Routine immunisation therefore should now be the focus of the Federal Ministry of Health and the Federal Government.”
Tomori further said he was happy that at last Nigeria attained the feat, adding that the sacrifices and hard work were worth the efforts. He noted,
“I wish to add that so long as we keep having new babies in millions in Nigeria, we must continue to provide them with vaccines needed to protect them from polio still circulating in two countries of the world and from other vaccine preventable diseases such as measles, whooping cough, yellow fever etc.”
Mohammed, who described the feat as remarkable, added that he was happy Nigeria finally succeeded in kicking polio out of the country.
On his part, Girbo, who thanked those who contributed in achieving the status, called on all to sustain the rating as complacency would be costly. He stated,
“This can only be maintained through continuous and sustained efforts at routine immunisation, advocacy and health education. Continuous disease surveillance should also be maintained to ensure that possible outbreaks are identified early and stopped.
“However, with a deep sense of relief and enthusiasm, it clearly demonstrates that with sustained commitment, even other vaccine preventable diseases can be eradicated.”