Whenever a new family moves to town, local officials immediately alert Halima Ibrahim Zubair, 37, who’s known around these parts as “Maman Polio” or mother of polio.
It’s because this vigilant advocate works to make sure that no child slips through the cracks when it comes to getting vaccinated against the paralyzing disease that predominantly affects children under 5.
Zubair, a mother of six, works as a community mobilizer with UNICEF, and is responsible for ensuring that children in Gaya, a Local Government Area in Kano State, Nigeria, get lifesaving vaccines and other critical health treatments. Together with her team, Zubair has helped vaccinate more than 95 percent of the children in her area against polio.
"It pains me when children and women die of completely preventable causes," Zubair told UNICEF. "This job gives me the opportunity to reach out to the most-in-need and work with them to find solutions."
As advocates mark World Polio Day on Saturday, supporters are celebrating the work of ardent health workers, like Zubair, who have made a measurable difference in wiping out the disease.
Nigeria has particular cause to celebrate this year since the country announced last month that polio, a disease that can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours, is no longer endemic to the country.
Just three years ago, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide, according to WHO.
But thanks to its massive vaccination effort, which involves a collaboration of government groups, NGOs and local health workers, the country hasn’t had a reported case since last July.
It’s been a formidable task considering Nigeria’s size and density.
Nigeria is about twice the size of California with nearly five times the population, according to Lea Hegg, Gates Foundation program officer.
While gathering the manpower was one challenge, training health workers to connect with locals and assuage their concerns has been equally as important to protecting vulnerable children against the disease.
Over the years, vaccinators in Nigeria have faced considerable pushback. Some religious leaders accused them of trying to sterilize Muslim children and in 2013, gunmen opened fire at a clinic in Northern Nigeria and killed nine polio vaccination workers.
Zubair’s efforts have proven successful due to way she strategically identifies families in need and the way she relates to each one.
Gaya presents its own set of challenges since nomads, known as Fulani, descend intermittently on the town for its life-supporting water bodies. Fulani children were often missed during polio rounds due to their capricious movements, according to UNICEF.
To ensure these kids are included in the vaccination efforts, Fulani leaders now call upon Zubair whenever a new group moves in and she immediately visits the new settlers with her vaccination team.
Zubair also works with each family to understand their individual concerns and issues.
“When I go to [a] community and try to convince them to let their children get vaccinated against polio, they tell me their other problems that for them are more pressing and present,” Zubair told UNICEF. “I cannot turn a blind eye to their sufferings and work with them to find local solutions.”
Since 1988, the number of polio cases has decreased worldwide by more than 99 percent and the disease remains endemic in only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But advocates warn that even in countries, like Nigeria, where there's been tremendous success, health advocates can't afford to let their guard down.
"Nigeria has made remarkable progress against polio, but continued vigilance is needed to protect these gains and ensure that polio does not return," WHO said in a statement in September. "Immunization and surveillance activities must continue to rapidly detect a potential re-introduction or re-emergence of the virus."
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