The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially certified Africa free of the wild poliovirus on Aug. 25, 2020, a silver lining moment in an unusually tough year for the world.
To get to this point, it has taken many years, huge sums of money, and contributory efforts of various levels of government, the private sector, the medical industry, health care workers, and frontline polio volunteers, especially in developing countries.
One of those developing countries is Nigeria, the last African country to eradicate the virus — and one of those frontline polio volunteers is 69-year-old Hurera Isah.
Isah has been working as a volunteer community mobilizer (VCM) with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Unguwar Muazu Maihoto settlement, Jibia Local Government Area, Katsina State, for the past seven years.
"My favourite thing to do is talk about health," Isah told Global Citizen. "It is said that health has no comparison. Health is above all else and that is why I have a passion for health care work. I started it because of the resistance and hate people have for polio-like work. That resistance is what gave me the desire to become a volunteer."
"At the time when I started on this project, I faced a lot of challenges because people disliked anything that had to do with polio," she added.
A highly infectious disease, polio usually affects children under 5 years old, with around 1 in 200 infections resulting in permanent paralysis. Of those paralysed, 5-10% die due to crippled breathing muscles.
Through her work, Isah single-handedly changed her settlement from a chronic non-compliance and non-health friendly settlement to one with zero non-compliance; 80% of child delivery in health facilities; less than 10% default for all routine immunization (RI) antigens; and increased turnout of pregnant women for antenatal care (ANC) services, according to UNICEF officials.
Eliminating polio is one thing — eliminating it for good is another. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the latter much more difficult.
"[COVID-19] affects my work. I [used to go] out for sensitization twice or thrice weekly, but that has been reduced to barely once, and we still have to maintain a safe distance while discussing. Because this virus is invisible to the naked eye, I am scared of it and people in my community are scared too," she said.
"Now I further emphasize washing of hands, protecting the face because if one sneezes or coughs, it stops there," she added. "Before COVID-19, every week, children were brought for vaccination, but there has been a lockdown in town that prevents movement — how then can children be brought in to be vaccinated?"
Nigeria’s historically underfunded health care system and other socio-economic factors like religion, income, education, and wealth inequalities make public health crises like COVID-19 a big problem.
While the government has set up various measures, including a six-week lockdown, millions of vulnerable Nigerians and frontline workers like Isah still need a lot of support.
This gaping hole has also caused several private sector-led initiatives to be created, including the Nigeria Solidarity Support Fund (NSSF), a partnership between Global Citizen Nigeria and the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA).
For Isah, the eradication of polio offers up lessons for how Nigeria can cope better with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Cooperation is what made all this possible — because I could not have done it alone, the doctor could not have done it alone, even the emir [a regional monarch] could not have done it alone. The organizations that contributed money and effort couldn’t have done it alone. Volunteers couldn’t have done it alone," Isah said.
"Today women listen to us and take their children to the hospital and this is a good thing, because we all worked together to achieve it," she added.
The eradication of polio in Nigeria isn't just a victory for the world, but is a victory for health workers like Isah too, and for the many lives she and health workers like her have touched.
"One of my favourite memories is of two Islamic teachers," Isah said. "Whenever I [would] go to their street, the moment they [would] see my blue abaya [robe], they [would] start saying. 'She’s here! She’s here!' out of spite and everyone [would] turn around to stare at me. They were always angry when I first started trying to talk to them about polio. But now when they see me, they are the first to welcome me because we now have a good relationship."
"They are men and I sat with them to sensitise them and told them the importance of health," she continued. "I told them to use mosquito nets because it prevents them from having the usual fever they have. Now, if they don't see me in a week, one of them normally calls me on the phone and asks, 'Is everything alright?' And that's such a treat."
Quotes from Hurera Isah have been translated and edited for clarity.