Birnin Kebbi, 3 June, 2021 – Alhaji Samaila Muhammadu Mera, the 33rd Emir of Argungu in Nigeria’s Kebbi state, has been one of the foremost traditional leaders using all resources at his disposal to ensure that his Emirate is vaccinated against infectious diseases. As a prominent member of the popular Northern Nigeria Traditional Council on Polio Eradication and Primary Health Care, Emir Muhammad was particularly active in seeing that children under five in Northern Nigeria took the polio vaccine before Nigeria was certified free of the virus, and he continues to advocate for routine immunization as routine vaccination efforts continue in the country. In this opinion article, the Emir reminisces on his experience with polio vaccination in his community and compares it to the current COVID-19 vaccination drive in the country. For the Emir, disinformation has caused a high level of vaccine-hesitancy, but he will not relent in convincing the people of Argungu to get vaccinated and to adhere to COVID-19 prevention precautions.
I took the Covid-19 vaccine recently and I must say that the shot has made me feel more safe, as I combine that with continued use of my nose mask. The shot was a bit painful, but the discomfort went away after a little while.
In my Emirate, I have been leading efforts to get the vaccines to every home. But the vaccination campaign has been tough as much misinformation has been peddled about the virus and its antidote. I myself was bombarded with a lot of information and was finally convinced to take the Covid-19 vaccine when I remembered the earlier action taken by World leaders to lock down all cities, towns and places of worship in Europe, Americas, Middle east, Asia, China and Russia. These actions have had a serious impact on economic, social, and religious activities of people worldwide. We don’t want such again and so we must comply with the rules and if that means taking the vaccine, then that is what we must do.
There are those in my community who say Covid-19 is a lie but it obviously isn’t. Such universal action with all its negative impact on social and economic lives of citizens of these nations must have been taken after deep evaluation of the great danger posed to the world by the disease. No government will take such a decision just to support a lie. And there is much evidence to prove the disease is real. We saw very influential leaders in hospitals, and some even landed in the ICU. Many rich and powerful people died and their demise was linked to the disease. These physical facts convinced me and they also formed the bulk of the information I used to convince my people about the reality of the disease and the need to be vaccinated.
Vaccines are not new to my people, so that has been a positive one for us. We have, for years, been administering the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) to our children and this has become part and parcel of our activities. We all rejoiced when Nigeria was finally declared polio free last year and even now, when there is routine immunization, people still present their children.
However, I have noticed there are some major differences between when we conducted the mass polio campaigns and when we are sensitizing people about Covid-19 vaccine.
For example, during the polio campaign, there isn’t much of a challenge in mobilizing parents to present their children for vaccination, even after the certification due to the fact that all our messages back then reflected that vaccination must continue beyond certification. The parents have not given us many problems around why they should still present their kids after we already told them that Nigeria has been declared polio-free. The major problem that we have encountered with administering OPV was the prolonged interruption of activities due to Covid-19 pandemic that made people relax. In Kebbi we had a 13-months gap between the last and the most recent vaccination round so we are actively trying to get people engaged again.
The issues around COVID-19 vaccine, on the other hand, have been quite significant. There is widespread hesitancy and that has made it difficult to engage people, especially as we need to urgently vaccinate eligible groups. I can’t recall any vaccine that was maligned like that of COVID-19. It is much easier to convince people to take the polio vaccine than COVID-19 vaccine, because too many lies were told about COVID-19 vaccine and no adequate efforts were made by governments across the world to counter the fake information about Covid-19.
Additionally, adequate engagement with stakeholders at all levels to convey appropriate information about the disease and the vaccine to the grassroots, to the rural communities was lacking. Politicizing the disease and its control by world leaders and the media made the matter worse and we saw that problem in Nigeria too.
In Argungu, we got people to accept the OPV vaccine because we at the traditional and local levels were properly engaged. We are consistently reinforcing that message that polio vaccines must be continued. We celebrated World Polio day in October last year in Argungu Emirate and used the opportunity to recognize and celebrate key stakeholders. We gave trophies to the police for their support, the community leaders and religious leaders for the role they played. We identified Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs), town announcers, and so on for their contribution to the zero-polio achievement. Events like that and avenues like the annual Eid Celebration where people gather for sermons, affords us the opportunity to speak directly to the parents and caregivers on issues of vaccination, thus keeping the message alive.
But for COVID-19 there wasn’t a strong campaign to convince people to accept it in the same way. Some Governors were proactive with a proper agenda while some showed minimal concern.
However, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 has done well in sending messages, conducting interviews, and positioning billboards across the country encouraging people to accept the vaccine and observe other preventive and control measures.
The ways that we have tried to mitigate the crisis have been fairly effective in my opinion. For us traditional leaders, we simply led by example; I received the vaccine publicly and I am always wearing a face mask publicly to encourage people. I have given physical assurances to the people during Eid celebration where I publicly assured my people that the vaccine is safe because I took it and here I am hale and hearty, my 85 years old mother took it and she’s fine, all my wives took it, and all my eligible children took the vaccine. Majority of my council members and staff (70-80%) took it and they are all fine.
I also try to engage well with the media. I have conducted interviews on national television stations for the wider public to accept COVID-19 vaccination and adhere to other public health measures. We traditional leaders have allowed our pictures to be used on billboards in order to improve public acceptance for COVID-19 vaccine.
In conclusion, I believe there is a need for the government to mount a big campaign for the COVID-19 vaccination involving the traditional and religious leaders fully at the national level, to cascade to the states, LGAs, districts, and grass root level.
Nonetheless, I will do more, in my position, and continue to sensitize my people and make all efforts to convince them to be vaccinated. This is our job and we will never relent our efforts in the service of our people.
Dr Samuel Bawa; Email: bawas [at] who.int; Tel: +234 810 221 0195
Dr Omoleke Semeeh; Email: omolekes [at] who.int; Tel: +234(0)8167597029