Nigeria’s Polio Survivors Not Out of the Woods Yet, but the System Hardly Cares

As a child growing up in Sango-Otta, Ogun State, Adeyemi Idowu loved to play soccer with friends. Like others in his age group, he also delighted in rolling tyres with a stick in his right hand as he scampered through the neighbourhood. But he soon had to bid farewell to that life of playful adventure as a result of poliomyelitis.

Commonly known by its abbreviation, polio, the crippling and infectious disease causes muscles to weaken. In the majority of people with the poliovirus, there are either minor symptoms or no symptoms at all. But this was not the case for Idowu, who before his fourth birthday suffered paralysis — a rare case of polio infection. 

It started as a headache for which he used a pain relief medicine known as Phensic. He relaxed, went out in the evening to play with friends, and returned to his mom’s grocery shop where he dozed off. After nightfall, she nudged him to wake up so they could go into the house. He tried standing up twice but fell back each time. The third time, his legs would not budge even slightly. Thinking he was just wobbly from sleep, she lifted and carried him to his room. By the next morning, Idowu had lost his ability to move anything but his eyes. After receiving treatment, he regained control of his upper body. His legs, which had grown significantly thinner, could not respond to treatment.

“I woke up one morning and the entire story of my life just changed,” he tries to summarise the experience.

With tremendous difficulty and rare determination, Idowu has since gone on to graduate from primary school, secondary school, university, and the Nigerian Law School (NLS). He was called to the bar last November and is now with the National Youth Service Corps. But it is not all rosy for the young lawyer as life with polio can be an unending struggle — no thanks to a condition known as the Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS).

Polio often affects children aged under five years and only causes irreversible paralysis in one out of 200 cases of infection. The World Health Organisation notes that, with only 33 reported incidents in 2018, “wild poliovirus cases have decreased by over 99 per cent since 1988”, owing to immunisation efforts stepped up by various international NGOs.

From contributing to over 50 per cent of all polio cases worldwide in 2012, Nigeria was declared last year to no longer be polio-endemic having gone over three years without incident. But one area not much attention has gone to is the medical and social needs of survivors of the disease many of whom are disabled and sometimes suffer from a secondary illness. Post-Polio Syndrome surfaces many years after the initial attack in the form of muscle weakness, severe fatigue, and pain in the limbs due to degenerating motor nerve cells.

There are about 11 million polio survivors in Nigeria, according to an estimate by the Disability Rights Advocacy Group (DRAC), and as many as 85 per cent could have symptoms of PPS. The problem is many do not know, including the sufferers themselves.

Post-Polio Syndrome. What’s that?

Post-Polio Syndrome affects different people in different ways. It might affect parts of the body originally infected by the poliovirus or disturb entirely new areas. Some polio survivors with PPS suddenly find it difficult climbing stairs, some have difficulty walking, and for others, the problem is unusual fatigue.

Idowu started noticing severe weakness in his hands, especially the right one when he got admitted into the University of Ibadan. He thinks this might be as a result of the pressure of taking notes and writing ceaselessly for several hours during examinations. He had no idea what PPS was until he visited the university clinic in his second year following advice of one of his lecturers, Bukola Akinbola.

“I started taking a few measures to correct it. I had to change some of the enhancements I was using,” he recalls. “For instance, when I got to the UI, I was using wooden crutches and I had to change them to aluminium ones.”

A fii suru ni matter yen [one just has to be patient],” he chuckles sadly, referring to the physiotherapy. The necessary treatment just wasn’t affordable for the average person, let alone a student.

Explaining why awareness is still poor and many people suffering from PPS do not know, Roseline Ezenagu, executive director of Eccentric Support Initiative, says efforts have not been made to throw light on the condition using indigenous languages.

“People know about polio because the awareness is there already, but little or nothing is known about PPS,” she stresses.


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