July 24 marks one year since Nigeria’s last reported case of wild poliovirus. While one year without wild polio in Nigeria is a significant milestone, it is not an endpoint. Two more years must pass without a case of wild poliovirus for Nigeria to be certified polio-free along with the rest of the WHO's African region.
We sat down with Faleke B. Bolanle, AIDS Action Manager/Health Educator with the Ikeja local government in Lagos State, Nigeria, to discuss her work and hopes for the future.
What does a typical day look like in your work?
In my area, I look after 18 wards in our local government, doing health talks with nursing mothers and caregivers in various health centers.
There are many misconceptions in Nigeria around vaccines and polio vaccinations. We try to track down where rumors are coming from, and then we go to those locations and convene community dialogues to help sensitize people about the polio vaccines. During these dialogues, we allow community members to say their problems and together we work together to find solutions. This helps them feel ownership over the solution.
I also mentor and train community members to recognize challenges in the community and bring them to me when I can’t be there.
What is most inspiring about your work?
I’m most inspired by polio survivors who themselves are working to sensitize people. They talk to people, say they are a survivor, and talk about how if they had been immunized they wouldn’t be in this condition.
I’m also inspired by success stories. For instance, one Hausa community was a red zone for vaccines; they didn’t even want to hear about immunization. But, after a series of dialogues and sensitizations, this community now fully accepts immunizations. In fact, they no longer wait at home for vaccines to come to them but they travel to health centers to ensure their children get vaccinated.
What are some of the challenges you face in your work?
Access to health care is a main one. There should be a health facility in each local ward, but this is not always the case. In some communities, they must go long distances to get their children immunized and they decide this is too much. This is affecting immunization coverage, so we do outreach and bring vaccines to remote communities.
Fundings gaps are also a main challenge. There is particularly a lack of funding around social mobilization for vaccines – flyers, posters, conducting meetings and general public awareness, etc. Funding for mobilization should come from every stakeholder; if more hands can be on deck in terms of funding and carrying out social mobilization activities then we will make more progress.
What motivates you to do this work?
My motivation started during my community work, doing my youth volunteer service. This is where I got the drive and zeal to do my community work. I was posted to a rural community where mortality rates for women and children were high. I didn’t like what I was seeing, so I decided to do something about it. And I found that the little I was able to put in yielded progress – so I was motivated to do more. And once I started doing that – I didn’t want to do anything else! You’ll never find me in the office now, you’ll always find me in the community.
What is your message to the international community for the one-year polio-free mark in Nigeria?
I don’t necessarily see it as a time for celebration. I am seeing it as a time for more work. Particularly, we need to improve on our surveillance to be certain that there is no more cases of wildpolio virus.
I see it as more work, we cannot be complacent. I also see it as a scorecard to give to caregivers, religious leaders, communities, all stakeholders to tell them that now that you have accepted the polio vaccine on a high level, you have seen the results. So now we must work more.