Address by Hon. Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire on occasion of a World Press Conference on Thursday, 27th August, 2020 following the official declaration of Nigeria & the African Region As Polio Free

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We have marked the very significant milestone in the health sector, when the African Region of the World Health Organization received the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication from the African Regional Commission Committee (ARCC). The ARCC, as we know, is an independent body of public health experts, appointed by the World Health Organization to review the documentation and assess evidence presented by Nigeria, to support our claim of the complete absence of Wild Polio Virus (WPV) circulation in our country. The Committee has declared and certified Nigeria and, ultimately the African Region, to be wild-polio-virus-free, after thorough analysis and verification of the documentation we submitted.

2.    Poliomyelitis is a debilitating disease caused by the polio virus, which has afflicted children globally in their thousands, including our nationals, and resulted in illness, lifetime physical disabilities and sometimes loss of life. Today has unfortunately come too late for all those who have paid the price or suffered any form of disability, since the coordinated fight against polio started over three decades ago; but for the millions of us and our children who have been protected from the scourge of this disease, this is a day to celebrate, as I congratulate all Nigerians on this historic moment.

3.    This achievement was made possible by the strong commitment of the President of the Federal Republic and of Federal, State and Local Governments, with the support of Development Partners, Sponsors and Donors, Traditional, Religious and Community leaders, and not the least, thousands of National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) staff and gallant frontline health workers, who moved from house to house, community to community, vaccinating children, sometimes under difficult and daunting circumstances.

4.    I therefore start by recognizing those who made sacrifices during the trying times and helped us to demonstrate that great things can be done when there is a will and we come together as a people for a common purpose.

5.    Declaring Nigeria as a polio virus free state is particularly significant for us, coming at a time when we are on the threshold of fostering an evolution in the health sector, built on the revelations and opportunities provided by the COVID-19 outbreak and inspired by the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari.

6.    Along with smallpox, WPV would be the second successful eradication of a virus disease from Nigeria in the past forty years. This gives us the confidence that if we deploy lessons learnt and use the tools and management structures acquired, we can build and strengthen our Primary Health Care network to sustain the tempo and gains for the broader aspiration for our health sector, which is to wipe out other vaccine preventable diseases.

7.    Ladies and Gentlemen, this journey that started in 1988 and has finally taken us to where we are today, has been long, laborious and costly. There have also been tragic moments, when some of our Health worker colleagues paid with their lives, and others barely got away with various degrees of injuries, some ending in permanent disability. Let us remember and honour them as I request one-minute standing and silence in their honour and memory. May they, who are the true heroes of the war against this disease, rest in peace. The loved ones they left behind will today share the credit of winning the war against polio and be assured that their sacrifices were not in vain.

8.    The course of this war has been tedious for two main reasons: first because, to defeat polio, we had to first defeat fear, doubt, scepticism, suspicion, false rumours, campaigns of disinformation, all of which were planted by detractors of all types.  To the rescue came men and women who supported us with their whole heart, to shore up confidence and public acceptance of the polio program. First is His Excellency the President of the Republic, who personally vaccinated his grandchild to openly demonstrate that the few drops of vaccine were not harmful, but lifesaving. Then there are our traditional rulers, led by His Eminence the Sultan of Sokoto, who joined in countless campaigns to reassure sceptics, followed by our political and community leaders, who lent their voices to become part and parcel of the struggle. In this latter category belong also Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Mr & Mrs Bill Gates and other champions, who took it as a personal assignment to make this polio eradication initiative succeed. Nigeria appreciates your contributions.

9.    The other reason why the struggle against polio took this long was the location the virus chose as its last refuge in Nigeria; the war torn North East, where insecurity made access to health workers a risky venture that cost several public Health vaccinators their lives. Routine health care and infrastructure had collapsed and along with them, all immunization efforts. The dilemma being how to reach the unreachable, the President graciously ordered the engagement of the Armed Forces in the war against polio, a critical and unique partnership, which has generated global interest.

10.    May I now single out those men and women of our Armed Forces who became a key part of the polio eradication effort, when they carried campaigns into hard to reach and security compromised areas. On behalf of the President, I salute you and tell you this victory is also yours.

11.    This being a day of celebration, I also on behalf of Mr President commend everyone, who contributed to this success in ways known and unknown: our amiable Governors, First Ladies, members of the National Assembly, LGA Chairmen, Civil Society Organizations and others too many to mention, for providing the requisite leadership and helping to create the awareness needed for the eradication of Wild Polio Virus.

12.    There is no gainsaying the fact that the media has been pivotal to our success. Your understanding and support have been motivating. We sincerely appreciate the vibrant Nigerian Press that gingered our efforts and contributed to making this day a reality. The management and staff of the Federal Ministry of Health, other supporting Agencies like NCDC, those at National Primary Health Care Development Agency who work behind the scene to make frontline work possible.  Donors, development Partners, your effort is recognized and appreciated.

13.    Last but not least, I applaud our Development Partners, sponsors, donors: the World Health Organization, UNICEF & other UN Agencies, the Rotary International, Dangote Foundation, GAVI, BMGF and all other driving forces behind the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, who not only provided technical and financial support, but were the inspiration and guiding spirit behind the success.

14.    In the course of all of this, we must however, be reminded that we are not resting on our oars, because polio is not yet over for the African continent. As long as the polio virus is still active in the Asian region and the menace of the circulating vaccine derived polio virus remains in our continent, our Surveillance system must remain sensitive and up to the certification standard. The National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) will continue to be active, to respond promptly to any emerging disease outbreak.

15.    The Federal Government, through NPCHDA, has mapped out various polio assets across the country and started deploying them for the purpose of other disease interventions. I urge State Governors to support this effort and begin to implement the transition of the experienced polio human resources for Health, to other areas of the health sector, especially at Primary care level. This new era can be the rallying point for progress and development of Health on the African continent and our country. This is my message for you today.

16.    Thank you for your attention and God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

FMOH Agencies

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