Hafsat Ibrahim, a polio core trainer with the World Health Organization (WHO) and mother of five, is proud of the many lives she has protected from polio in her community in Kano State, Nigeria. Her role has helped shape community attitudes toward vaccination, as well as provide the salary necessary to start a small business to support her family.
“I worked with WHO to make sure every child is immunized [and] all my five children have got the vaccine … I'm very happy because their immune system [has] increased and also they are healthier,” Ibrahim told Global Citizen in August. “I have seen the transformation because now that the vaccine is accessible, [there is] no more paralysis of children in the community; no more threat of wild poliovirus.”
As a mother, resident, and experienced health care professional, Ibrahim understands the importance of protecting her community from the deadly disease, and how the journey to eradicate polio at home in Nigeria has had wider implications around the world.
Today polio is 99.9% eradicated worldwide — but it remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where routine immunizations have been stifled by the COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest, and conflict, all of which threaten to derail progress toward ending polio globally.
There are children around the world who continue to be paralyzed and killed by the virus. The solution, experts say, is getting vaccines to the hardest-to-reach places, vaccinating every child, and changing attitudes toward vaccination at the community level.
Hafsat Ibrahim (right), a polio core trainer with WHO, is proud of the many lives she has protected from polio in her community in Kano State, Nigeria. Image: Human Design for Global Citizen
“Eradicating polio in Nigeria has proved that these strategies ... can work for other preventable diseases,” Dr. Mayana Sanusi Abubakar, state coordinator of the WHO polio eradication effort in Kano, Nigeria, told Global Citizen in August. “So many partners were on the ground in Nigeria to support polio eradication — GPEI, WHO, CDC, and Global Citizen … These partners have changed the narrative within the Nigerian polio eradication context.”
In 2020, Africa was certified free of wild poliovirus, four years after Nigeria — the last polio-endemic country on the continent — recorded its final case of wild polio. Global Citizen interviewed Abubakar during a trip to Nigeria to learn how the actions of Global Citizens contributed to efforts to eliminate wild polio across the country.
“There was an innovative approach and strategies toward reducing the cases to almost zero in 2020. And through that, Nigeria and the African region at large achieved the certification of a polio-free nation and a polio-free continent,” said Abubakar, who worked with vaccinators, like Ibrahim, to change community attitudes toward vaccines and deliver them to families throughout the Nasarawa and Kano municipal local government areas.
Eliminating polio in Nigeria has proven that these vaccine strategies can work for other preventable diseases. Image: Human Design for Global Citizen
And changing community attitudes toward vaccination was key to eliminating the disease in Nigeria once and for all.
“The biggest challenge Nigeria faced as a country with regard to the polio education initiative was the acceptance of the community to receive the vaccine,” Abubakar said. “There are a lot of religious and cultural health concerns associated with [its] acceptance. People [were] asking so many questions. Why are we getting this vaccine free? Why are we not getting other medical services for free? There are so many unverified rumors about the vaccine.”
When GPEI launched in 1988, 125 countries were reporting polio cases, paralyzing more than 1,000 children per day. Today, more than 3 billion children have been immunized against the disease, decreasing international cases by 99%.
And the initiative recognizes the critical role of women like Ibrahim in fighting the virus. In Nigeria, women are often the only ones who can access households to vaccinate children, with female health professionals working within their communities and their own families to improve attitudes toward polio vaccination.
Dr. Mayana Sanusi Abubakar, state coordinator of the WHO polio eradication effort in Kano, Nigeria, spoke to Global Citizen on how global organizations and Global Citizens' actions are helping communities combat polio. Image: Human Design for Global Citizen
“Now the people, the community have awareness of immunization, they will leave their children to take it [the polio vaccine] because they have seen the importance of it,” Ibrahim told Global Citizen. “Before the vaccine is accessible, the children used to die crippled and all the time they had a threat of wild poliovirus.”
It has been more than a decade since Global Citizens called for action on polio at the very first “End Polio Concert” in Australia. To date, more than 100 world leaders have pledged to support eradicating the disease, thanks to Global Citizen campaigns.
Changing community attitudes toward polio vaccination was key to eliminating the disease once and for all across Nigeria. Image: Human Design for Global Citizen
Today, Global Citizens are still taking action to eradicate the disease and help continue to deliver urgent funding to partners like GPEI. And those actions are felt all over the world, including in Nigeria — and it doesn’t stop at polio.
“Global Citizens ... as they always do, [are] able to mobilize resources for Nigeria to tackle other preventable diseases like malaria. That will definitely also change the whole landscape of the fight against vaccine-preventable disease,” said Abubakar.
The only way to eradicate polio once and for all is to end all cases for everyone, everywhere. And local efforts in communities like Ibrahim’s can make all the difference. “All my five children have got the vaccine. I'm very happy because their immune system has increased and also they are healthier,” said Ibrahim. “Their education is well developed and also they can engage in so many things because of the immunity they have [gotten].”