As It Happens

Africa has been declared free of wild polio, and this survivor helped make it happen

Misbahu Lawan Didi has dedicated his life to convincing people to vaccinate their children against polio, and his efforts — and those of countless others — have finally paid off.

'Seeing is believing for many people,' says Misbahu Lawan Didi, who makes personal appeals for vaccination

Misbahu Lawan Didi is the founder of the Nigerian parasoccer federation and head of the Nigerian Polio Survivors Association. (Submitted by Misbahu Lawan Didi)


Misbahu Lawan Didi has dedicated his life to convincing people to vaccinate their children against polio, and his efforts — and those of countless others — have finally paid off.

On Tuesday, health authorities declared that wild polio — the term used to describe the naturally occurring strains of the debilitating virus — has been eradicated in Africa, four years after the last case was recorded in Nigeria. It's a massive milestone for the continent, where polio once paralyzed 75,000 children a year.

"I am very excited, very, very happy to hear the the news. And not only me. I believe almost all the Nigerians, especially polio survivors, were so excited to hear the news," Didi, the president of the Nigerian Polio Survivors Association, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"I think it's the collective efforts that led to the achievement of the polio eradication, not only by us in Nigeria or Africa, but globally."

However, challenges remain. A rarer, vaccine-derived strain of the disease, which can occur in areas with poor sanitation, is still in circulation on the continent. What's more, health workers warn there is still a possibility that scattered cases of the wild poliovirus remain undetected. 

Polio survivors on rollers play a game of para-soccer in Abuja, Nigeria, on Aug. 22. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

On Tuesday, the independent Africa Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication declared the region free of endemic wild polio during a World Health Organization event.

The viral disease attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. Children under five are the most vulnerable, but people can be fully protected with preventative vaccines.

To eradicate polio, more than 95 per cent of a population needs to be immunized. That's been a difficult feat, especially in Nigeria, the last country in Africa to eradicate the disease.

The final push to combat the wild poliovirus focused largely on northern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram extremist group has carried out a deadly insurgency for more than a decade, making it dangerous for health-care workers to perform vaccinations safely. 

"Many people lost their lives in the cause of eradicating polio," Didi said. 

It was also a battle of public relations. Didi says he enc​​​​​​ountered a lot of deep-seated resistance during his work to promote immunization in the country.

Some people, he said, simply don't believe in the virus. In his own community, he says many insisted his own symptoms were the results of "spiritual problems" rather than a medical disease.

Conspiracy theories also abound, sometimes amplified by people in authority. Didi says he's met people who believe the vaccine is dangerous, or that free immunization programs were the result of "Western manipulation."

Many were skeptical about why government would give away this vaccine for free, "when other health-care activities, you have to pay for," he said. 

"So these suspicions by the populations grow and grow." 

Didi addressing players during a para-soccer game in Abuja this week. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

Didi himself was diagnosed with polio when was two years old and has been unable to walk for most of his life. 

"I know the problems I have encountered ... the discrimination, the challenges in movement, the looking down on us for many, many, many people," he said.

"And I want to give my support and make sure we would no longer have other people to experience what I did."

He and other survivors visit people in person to spread their message, he said, and it's a very effective strategy. After all, he says, they are living embodiments of the disease's effects. 

"Seeing is believing for many people," he said. "For you to see somebody who is looking different from you, that alone is an advocacy."

Still, Africa is not 100 per cent free of polio. A vaccine-derived strains of the disease continues to circulate.

These cases can occur when the weakened live virus in the oral polio vaccine spreads through under-immunized populations, and eventually mutates to a form that can cause paralysis.

The key to stopping this, the WHO says, is to ensure all areas have widespread immunization, and that each child receives several rounds of the vaccine. 

"We must stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence of the wild poliovirus and address the continued threat of the vaccine-derived polio," said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. 

A girl receives polio vaccine drops during an anti-polio campaign in Karachi, Pakistan, where wild polio remains endemic. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

What's more, wild polio continues to be endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Until wild poliovirus is eradicated everywhere, it's still a risk everywhere," Michael Galway, a polio expert at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told Reuters.

"There's nothing that prevents the virus from making the route from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Africa.

But Didi remains optimistic that if other countries follow the lessons learned in Nigeria, polio will one day be eradicated worldwide.

"I am very hopeful because I have seen the reality," he said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. 

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