Vaccines: The Unyielding Shield Against Diphtheria's Heartbreak in Nigeria
Amid Nigeria's diphtheria outbreak, healthcare workers like Dr. Salma Suwaid are on the frontline to close a decade-long immunization gap, emphasizing the lifesaving value of vaccines for children.
In the heart of Kano, a city whose spirit usually resonates with children's laughter, the hallways of the MSF run Diphtheria Treatment Center paint a heartbreaking contrast. Tiny feet that once played in the streets now rest on sterile beds. The innocent cacophony of playtime replaced with the hollow wheezing of struggling breaths.
As I ventured into one of the wards, I was greeted by the sight of children tossing and turning, their bodies battling a foe they should never have met. Mothers, their faces marked with fear and desperation, sat vigilantly by the bedsides, praying their children would wake up to a healthier dawn.
It was here that I met Dr. Salma Suwaid. A pediatrician by profession, a warrior by circumstance. As the Head of Pediatrics for the State of Kano and the case manager for diphtheria, she is on the frontline of a battle Nigeria hadn't anticipated. Her eyes, weary yet resolute, narrated tales she put into words, "In just 24 hours, we've witnessed the loss of ten young souls. I remember a day, etched in my mind, where five children slipped away within minutes of each other."
Nigeria, a country of vibrant cultures and resilient hearts, now finds itself grappling with a deadly diphtheria outbreak. As of September 2023, over 11,500 suspected and 7200 confirmed cases with 453 deaths, mostly children, have darkened its soil. Kano stands as the unfortunate epicenter, harbouring the majority of these cases. What's more alarming is that the most of those affected are children aged 5 to 14, never having received a single dose of vaccines.
Dr Suwaid tells me of an incident where a mother reported to the hospital in January with herself and five out of her seven children testing positive for Diphtheria. Sadly, none of the children suffering from the illness survived, the mother barely made it out alive. The five deceased siblings had one thing in common – none of them had been vaccinated ever.
This isn't just an outbreak; it's a stark reflection of a decade-long gap in immunization. A generation is at risk, and we can't stand by watching."
In the current outbreak, viewed as one of the worst globally in recent times, over 60 per cent of confirmed cases of children suffering from Diphtheria are of those who haven’t received a single dose of vaccine. This underscores the value of vaccinations in a country where 2.2 million children have never received a single dose of lifesaving vaccines.
Amid this bleakness, hope arrives in all forms. Partners are coming together to support the government in this battle against the life-threatening bacteria. UNICEF is one of them. Rahama Farah, Chief of UNICEF’s Field Office in Kano, reiterated their support: “We've initiated our response with procurement of 1.2 million doses of the Td vaccine on behalf of the government. We're implementing an integrated response strategy which includes risk communication, community engagement, and robust infection prevention and control as part of our response. We're determined, and we're here, boots on the ground, to support the government in controlling this outbreak."
The story of diphtheria in Nigeria is not one of numbers, statistics, or clinical terms. It's a human story—a story of children whose dreams hang in the balance, of mothers whose hopes are punctuated by the rhythmic beeping of monitors, and of healthcare warriors like Dr. Salma, who refuse to relent.
When children are vaccinated, they're shielded not just from diseases but from a future marred by health complications. Their chances of thriving, learning, and playing as every child should, increase exponentially," Dr. Salma reflects. "It's heartbreaking to see beds occupied by children who, in a world where every parent understood the power of vaccination, would be playing outside, with a future untouched by disease.