By Zayamu Hassan
Dr Tunji Funsho, is the chairman of Rotary’s Nigeria National PolioPlus Committee. The committee is in charge of Rotary’s polio eradication efforts in Nigeria.
Dr Funsho has been a member of Rotary since 1985. The Lagos-based cardiologist was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the world for his work in eradicating Wild Polio Virus in Africa in 2020.
In this interview with Health Reporters, Dr Funsho said there must deliberate efforts by the governments at both federal and state level and other stakeholders to do away with misinformation, rumours and myths, in order and build trust in the current COVID-19 vaccination effort. Excerpts:
Nigeria’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is said to be low, what do you think are the possible reasons?
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected immunization programs all over the world, in Nigeria and beyond. Immunization campaigns for a number of vaccine-preventable diseases, from polio to measles, were temporarily paused at the beginning of the pandemic last year. For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 African countries delayed measles immunization drives last year as they dealt with the Coronavirus and an estimated 16.6 million children in Africa missed planned supplemental measles vaccine doses between January 2020 and April 2021.
Although critical activities like polio surveillance continued last year and polio immunization campaigns began resuming in July 2020 in outbreak and endemic countries, with COVID-19 prevention measures in place to protect frontline workers and communities, the need for all routine immunization programs to safely continue is paramount. What’s more, continuing to educate stakeholders; parents, community and the religious leaders among others, about the live-saving importance of routine immunization remains critical.
Experts are expressing fear of possible resurgence of polio in Nigeria due to low vaccination, what do you suggest should be done to avert polio coming back to Nigeria?
When the WHO African Region was certified wild polio-free in August 2020, it was huge step forward on the road to global polio eradication, and a monumental achievement for Rotary, our Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners, and the parents, religious leaders, local and national government officials and health workers throughout the region who worked tirelessly to reach this public health milestone.
Given that this global public health milestone means that five of the six WHO regions – representing over 90 percent of the world’s population – are free of the wild poliovirus, it is imperative that we maintain the African region’s status, and I am confident that we can. We must continue vaccinating every last child, and strengthen routine immunization to keep immunity levels high so the virus does not return to Africa.
At the peak of the polio fight in Nigeria some years ago, the northern part of the country did not cooperate, it took time for it to buy-in, what do you think should be done to ensure such ugly scenario does not repeat itself in the COVID-19 vaccination efforts?
Yes, you are correct. In Kano in 2004, there was an outbreak of wild polio as a result of a boycott of the oral polio vaccine instituted by state leaders, based on false beliefs, myths, and rumors.
In order to address this, the polio program developed innovative and culturally appropriate tactics to combat this misinformation. From engaging local and religious leaders to build community trust, to having frontline health workers supply families with food and other household items as they delivered immunizations to children to drive parental demand for polio immunizations, nuanced communication and social mobilization tactics proved to be successful.
Ultimately, as state and African Union leaders called on parties to take collective responsibility for Africa’s children, all stakeholders did join together to protect Nigeria and the region’s children against wild polio, and synchronized multi-country campaigns were launched in 23 countries across sub-Saharan Africa reaching 80 million children.
So now, we again must think in terms of collective responsibility as we address the spread of misinformation and rumors, and work together to build trust in coronavirus vaccines.
To that end, in Nigeria, at both the national and state level, Rotary and its partners are working to educate a variety of groups; health workers, media, government, traditional and religious leaders, about the importance of COVID-19 immunization and are also working to dispel vaccine myths and misinformation online and on social media.
Also, Rotary clubs and members throughout the country are working with political leaders to secure the support necessary for COVID-19 immunizations and are also working to develop and share pro-vaccination messaging; through channels such as radio advertisements, billboards, town criers, etc., and help people register for vaccination appointments.