Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan were three countries where anti-vaccination campaigns led by Muslin clerics and fanatics seriously set back the very real chance to globally eradicate polio. But Shobana Shankar writes that a vigorous campaign waged by Nigeria to combat the anti-vaxxwers provides useful lessons to the US as it finds itself having to deal with its own anti-vaxxers.
To consider that Nigeria, infamous for anti-vaxx campaigns leading to polio outbreaks, has any lessons for Americans may be shocking.
But as measles cases in the U.S. climb to an all-time high after the disease was declared eliminated in 2000, U.S. public health officials have been looking for ways to address the problem.
As a researcher on religious politics and health, I believe that Nigeria’s highly mobilized efforts to eliminate polio can teach America how to reverse the increase in measles cases and shore up its public health infrastructure. Working with international partners, Nigerians have combated misinformation, suspicion of vaccine science and religion-based boycotts to go from ground zero for polio on the African continent in 2003 to nearly polio-free in 2019.
Nigerians understood that simply ostracizing religious communities would not work. Anti-vaxx politics tapped into mistrust of government and “others” that ran deep in a diverse but divided society, where religious, regional and ethnic loyalties took priority over national unity.
The polio infrastructure in Nigeria immerses experts and local communities in an ongoing relationship. It is an elaborate multilayered surveillance system, with many strategies and functions, from mundane visits to weekly record reviews at health centers in polio-affected areas.
Nigeria spent over US$8 million on surveillance alone and expanded polio capabilities to fight other diseases like measles and rubella. While the system puts a heavy workload on health officials, it points the way for how the American public health system can reshape existing structures for the current era. America led international health partnerships for decades, but the time has come to follow other countries’ lead.
The big problem is persuading Americans that we can learn from other countries. After all, aren’t we the greatest?