I ask Funsho if he’s ever concerned that after all this, after three decades of effort, eradication of the virus will prove an unachievable goal, or that all of his efforts, and those of the armies of immunizers toiling in the virus’s last strongholds, could be undone by the villainy of outlaws in three remote corners of the planet. But Funsho regards these notions as unthinkable.
“My optimism is not born out of just an emotional attachment to polio eradication. It is also born out of technical analysis by WHO and the Gates Foundation,” he tells me.
“We’ve done it in Sudan, which is a conflict area,” Funsho continues. “We’ve done it in Central African Republic, which is continuously a conflict area. So we have the technical expertise to overcome the challenges of reaching children in conflict areas. We’re quite confident. It is just a matter of time till we do it.”
* * *
On the last day of the campaign, we’re in the city of Katsina, just under the border with Niger and in the next state over from Kano. We shadow another vaccination team through winding alleys between close houses, watchful police guards striding in a phalanx around us. We pick a careful route through knots of curious onlookers and across open drains carrying rubbish and human waste.
We follow team supervisor Rhoda Samson, coolly regal in swathes of raucous orange and red cotton, as she powers through cloying heat and shadowy doorways. She’s a force of nature, a vaccine guerilla fighter, sweet-talking mothers and cuddling babies and hard-selling vaccines. She beats a purposeful path to a hard-core “noncompliant” household, as the graffiti of thwarted visits on the wall outside attests. Her vaccinators have been turned back here many times. Inside the stifling room are a half-dozen women and a newborn baby boy. The mother hastily pulls on her veil as vaccinators and journalists—one of them a man—pour through her door. “Bamaso,” says the mother, Amina Ali. “We don’t want,” Samson translates.
She doesn’t want her children immunized because her husband doesn’t want it. “She says when the husband refused, and has not offended God, she also has refused. She says that the vaccination of polio is not food. So the husband says since the government can’t provide food, he will not accept immunizing.”
One of the burdens of the success of the polio program is that it has retreated so far behind the other urgent concerns preoccupying impoverished parents that they become resentful of the effort being plowed into what seems the least of their problems. Some enterprising communities seize on the polio priority to barter vaccinating their children against other urgent needs, like a water pump, or a road, or a school, even outside mediation in local political disputes.
Her husband, Ali Zaki, suddenly materializes at the doorway. He’s not happy to find his home besieged. For a moment, things threaten to get ugly. But Samson jiggles his baby and talks rapidly at him in Hausa, gently chastising, smiling, and cajoling. The father glimpses an opportunity to shake us down for a contribution toward the naming ceremony for his baby—a small price to pay on the road to polio’s oblivion. He responds gruffly and Samson squeals, as do the other women in the room, and they dance about with delight. “He says they believe in God, God is the one who does medicine for everyone,” Samson explains. “Since we have come, we should vaccinate the child ... God will not allow any evil to befall his children.”