By David Onmeje
Sometime in 2020, the Director- General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom, wisecracked; “Without health, people have nothing; without health, we have nothing as humanity.” Unmistakably, the global health specialist, again re-echoed the indispensability of an excited and happier humanity only when it is steeped in good health.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and with a population of over 200 million people, issues of public health have always been the concern of successive Governments in the country. Public healthcare delivery is also topmost on the cards of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. Firstly, Mr. President vowed to vacate Nigeria’s inglorious status as a nation still plagued by poliomyelitis (wild poliovirus) pandemic.
And after a painstaking search, President Buhari appointed Mr. Faisal Shuaib, a medical doctor; homebred and later, American-trained public health specialist as the Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer (CEO), National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) in January 2017. He parades unimpeachable records in management of public health issues globally. Dr. Shuaib spent productive time and years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) Seattle USA, as a Senior Program Officer, where he excelled.
At BMGF, Nigeria’s NPHCDA boss now, mastered the rudiments of developing and implementing strategies on polio outbreak response in Africa. So, his 2017 job in Nigeria was like walking on a familiar terrain with a wave of the hand. Frankly, dealing with Nigeria’s largely rural based population and a citizenry with diverse cultures and religious beliefs were nightmares beyond the proverbial storm in a tea cup.
But the leadership of NPHCDA fell on a seedy soil in Dr. Faisal Shuaib. He was extremely worried at the dearth of quality Primary Health Care (PHC) services in Nigeria generally. He voiced it at several fora that Nigeria only takes care of about 20%, instead of at least 70% of primary healthcare delivery to the people. So, he sought to change the narrative and today, most State Governments in Nigeria have prioritized PHC services as the fulcrum of Government, thus lessening the burden on secondary and tertiary health institutions.
In spite of the difficulties, Dr. Faisal Shuaib braved the odds very courageously with a mind fixated on success to end the plaque of wild polio in Nigeria. Therefore, in June 2020, the Africa Regional Certification Commission, an independent body mandated by WHO to oversee and certify the African region as polio-free, declared Nigeria as absolutely exculpated from the endemic poliovirus.
Nigeria was the only country on the African continent which withheld WHO’s certification of polio eradication. But Dr. Shuaib untied the knot in the collaboration with USAID by strengthening national health infrastructure systems and immunization. He faithfully and victoriously battled the scourge of poliovirus.
Upon defeat of poliovirus, Dr. Shuaib heaved a sigh of relief and excitedly exclaimed; “An amazing moment in our history…The Nigeria team led by NPHCA and partners demonstrated evidence of our polio-free status.” It was a earth-shattering point in Nigeria’s public health history.
But the eradication of the troublesome and somewhat, disgraceful wild poliovirus was merely Dr. Shuaib’s litmus test. No one, including soothsayers had an inkling of an impending and more dangerously explosive public health issue, which manifested with the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic. When COVID-19 broke out, it shuddered the world, massively spreading and killing. For the first time in a long while, even developed economies and nations with sophistry in medical technology bowed to the might of a deadly health scourge.
Luckily, through Dr. Faisal Shuaib’s astuteness and leadership ingenuity at NPHCDA, Nigeria has gone down in world history books as a country, which effectively controlled and managed the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. It shocked other nations of the world that Nigeria had a little over 157, 000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and less than 2,000 deaths, from the pandemic; whilst other countries around the globe recorded millions of infected people and deaths.
However, Dr. Shuaib proved his leadership mettle more translucently when COVID-19 vaccine was developed and certified by WHO for the immunization of people to curb the spread of coronavirus globally. In Nigeria, regressive partisanship, cultural and religious beliefs or prohibitions combined to frustrate or stifle the vaccination of Nigerians.
Indeed, some skeptics and doomsayers predicted a failure of the Buhari Presidency to effectively administer the initial 3.92 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on the people. Mr. Cheta Nwanze, of the Lagos-based risk consultancy firm, SBM Intelligence, bluntly proclaimed through an email; “There are quite a number of factors that work against Dr Shuaib’s hopes. We don’t have the money, and the infrastructure to distribute this amount (sic) of vaccines.”
Impressively though, the NPHCDA boss has disappointed his critics and perpetual wailers. While his adversaries mouthed all manner of insanities, it least occurred to them that a famed horse rider was on the horse in Dr. Shuaib’s personage.
In 2014, Dr. Shuaib was the main pillar of Nigeria’s successful response to the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), as the Head/Coordinator of the Ebola Emergency Operation Centre (EEOC). He established comprehensive structures that provided quality diagnostic, treatment, care and monitoring of EVD patients’ contacts with friends and family members.
Therefore, superintending on the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine immunization on Nigerians was another familiar turf and merely icing of his cake, unknown to his critics. When Nigeria took delivery of the initial 3.92 million doses of the COVAX facility on March 2nd 2021, trailing after Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, Dr. Shuaib knew, another national assignment has beckoned on him to save humanity.
Faisal Shuaib rolled out a masterplan and procedures for the COVID-19 vaccination administration. The NPHCDA boss is steadily executing it and hopes to vaccinate 40% of Nigeria’s population of over 200 million by the end of the year 2021, and to achieve the feat of 70 % by 2022, with subsequent receipt of the doses of the COVAX facility.
Storage facilities and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines throughout the federation, especially in rural communities were the haunting nightmares of Nigerians. The vaccines require a cold storage temperature of about 70 degrees Celsius in ultra-cold chain equipments, in a country still grappling with the problem of epileptic public power supply. But Dr. Shuaib perceived it as the least among the motley of problems confronting him. So, he engaged the services of the private sector for ultra-cold storage facilities for storage and distribution of the vaccines. So, no Nigerian has complained of an expired COVID-19 vaccine administered on him.
Dr. Shuaib set his targets and priorities perfectly. His first obsession was vaccinating medical doctors and public health workers as well as other publicly exposed workers. So, with vociferous public campaigns, preachments and involvement of all public health stakeholders, the NPHCDA boss has crossed the benchmark of success in the administration of COVID-19 vaccines in the country.
Nigerians have now broken the protocols and timelines Dr. Shuaib fixed for the gradual vaccination of different categories of people, depending on the delivery of the COVAX facility. COVID-19 vaccines are now crazily sought by Nigerians in every state and everywhere. A 42-year-old medical doctor, Mr. Ngong Cyprian, exclaimed after taking the vaccine; “I want everybody to be vaccinated. I am happy to be the first and I am happy I am not the last.”
But the best part of Dr. Shuaib’s leadership of NPHCDA is that has ensured every COVID-19 vaccine landing in Nigeria is duly tested, certified and approved by relevant local and international bodies as safe and effective for use by Nigerians. The agency is actively working with NAFDAC, and other sister agencies to ensure Nigerians get the best in protection of public health.
Therefore, President Buhari never made a mistake by reappointing Dr. Faisal Shuaib for a second term in January 2021. With him at NPHCDA, the coronavirus pandemic is no longer a mystery to Nigerians. #StaySafeCoronavirusIsReal!
Onmeje is a UK based public affairs analyst. Email: daonmeje@outlook