By Abdulmalik Musa
In a nation grappling with health crises, the fight against the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) – a harbinger of cervical cancer among others – has gained a significant foothold. On 24th October 2023, under the banner of the Federal Government and orchestrated by the Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Prof. Ali Pate, Nigeria heralded the introduction of the HPV vaccine into its routine immunisation system. This initiative, targeting girls aged 9-14, is a robust stride towards curbing cervical cancer, the third most common cancer among Nigerian women.
The path to this monumental milestone was strewn with challenges – financial constraints, logistical issues, and a lack of awareness. However, the narrative began to shift in 2014 with a pilot HPV vaccination program across three states, laying the groundwork for the nationwide rollout in 2023. International organizations like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, alongside the WHO and UNICEF, have been cornerstone allies, providing essential financial and technical support.
Gavi’s provision of six million (6,000,000) doses of the HPV vaccine was a substantial fillip, augmenting Nigeria’s resources which were already stretched thin. On the home turf, the government marshalled the training for healthcare workers and spearheaded community mobilisation to root out misinformation – steps quintessential to the success and sustainability of this vaccine saga.
Amid the collaborative efforts, one name stands out with considerable significance: Dr. Faisal Shuaib, the former Executive Director/CEO of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA). His appointment in 2017 as the head of the NPHCDA was indubitably tied to the role he played as the Head/Incident Manager of Nigeria’s successful Ebola outbreak response. In this role, he coordinated over a thousand health and allied workers to effectively contain the outbreak. This was in stark contrast to the coordination challenges experienced by some West African countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. During the outbreak, Nigeria lost only 8 people, whereas Guinea saw 2,544 deaths, Sierra Leone 3,956, and Liberia 4,810. Nigeria also managed to bring the outbreak under control in just over 3 months, in comparison to the approximately 1 to 2 years it took for countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to contain the Ebola outbreak.
During his term, Dr. Shuaib initiated a path brimming with significant achievements, including the eradication of the Wild Polio Virus. He was a key member of the Successful Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, which coordinated a strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria. He guided the Agency and its partners to ensure the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to eligible Nigerians, despite the country’s delicate health system. His tenure was characterized by a perfect fusion of experienced expertise and forward-looking leadership, qualities that were key as Nigeria contended with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Shuaib led the NPHCDA with a dedicated emphasis on tailoring interventions to the diverse needs of various populations, aiming to make healthcare accessible and equitable for all. As a refined public health professional, he persistently advocated for the integration of technology to enhance healthcare services. His readiness to implement innovative solutions has notably transformed the agency, resulting in greater efficiency and expanded availability of health services. His avant-garde approach has firmly positioned the agency at the vanguard of healthcare innovation.
Dr. Shuaib’s role in the successful HPV vaccine introduction is a testament to his enduring legacy. His innovative strategies, such as the development of a smartphone application for enhanced disease surveillance, underline his ability to harness technology in combating health crises. His departure as the ED/CEO of the NPHCDA may have created a void, but his indelible imprint on Nigeria’s public health sector remains a beacon of exemplary leadership.
As Nigeria embarks on this new chapter in its public health narrative, the successful HPV vaccine rollout stands as a beacon of hope for millions of girls. The endeavour reflects a synergic alliance between national and international bodies, with Gavi providing a whopping 6 million doses of the HPV vaccine, ensuring the vaccination drive’s success. Despite hurdles such as vaccine hesitancy and accessibility challenges, the government, fortified by the commitment and expertise of individuals like Dr. Shuaib and the likes, is poised to surmount these challenges.
This milestone of HPV vaccine rollout reflects relentless effort, resilience, and exemplary leadership, that brings to light renewed hope. As the HPV vaccine finds its way into the arms of the targeted demographic, the broader goal of significantly reducing the incidence of cervical cancer in Nigeria inches closer to reality. Through the lens of this achievement, the narrative of Nigeria’s public health odyssey is one of burgeoning hope, underscored by the enduring legacy of stalwarts like Dr. Faisal Shuaib.
The narrative of Dr. Shuaib is not merely a tale of personal triumph but a clarion call for sustained, visionary leadership in Nigeria’s public health sector. His journey epitomizes the essence of collaborative effort, illustrating that with the right leadership and global support, strides towards a healthier populace are attainable. The HPV vaccine rollout is a significant chapter in Nigeria’s ongoing quest for improved public health, and Dr. Shuaib’s contributions echo as a catalyst for this remarkable achievement.
As the health sector stands at a critical juncture requiring seasoned leadership, the extensive experience and accomplishments of Dr. Shuaib act as a fountain of knowledge and inspiration. Although he has stepped away from his role, the enduring impact of his strategies and innovations persists in influencing the sector. The Nigerian Government, in its pursuit to strengthen public health, stands to gain by adopting the principles and methods that Dr. Shuaib has embodied. His proven ability to lead the nation through health challenges and his support for technological progress in healthcare have established a benchmark. It would be fitting for the government to acknowledge and honour Dr. Shuaib for his indispensable contributions, which could inspire and nurture a new generation of public health leaders.
As we celebrate the strides made in the fight against cervical cancer and the public health victories, we must also turn our attention to the road ahead. Public health is a shared responsibility; it requires the collective action of governments, healthcare workers, international partners, and, importantly, every member of the community. We call on all Nigerians to embrace the ongoing health initiatives, to participate actively in vaccination programs, and to contribute to the spread of accurate health information. Let’s unite to safeguard the well-being of our nation, to support the tireless work of our health sector, and to carry forward the legacy of excellence that has been so firmly established. Together, we can continue to make Nigeria a healthier, stronger, and more resilient society
*Mal. Musa is an Abuja-based health sector professional