body-container-line-1
28.11.2023 Article

Umaru Shehu: Nigerian public health giant who played a major role in polio eradication

By Idris Mohammed - The Conversation
- Source:- Source:
28.11.2023 LISTEN

Professor Emeritus Umaru Shehu, who died on 2 October 2023, was born in Yerwa (Maiduguri), Nigeria, in 1930. Widely regarded as one of the country's early leaders in public health policy and practice, he was the first public health physician in the northern region and remained active all his life.

He will be remembered for his great work in eradicating poliomyelitis from Nigeria. He started the National Programme on Immunisation in 1995 and was the agency's first chairman. His efforts, with others, culminated in Nigeria achieving polio-free status on 18 June 2020 . The country was officially declared free of the disease on 25 August 2020. Poliomyelitis mainly affects children under five years of age.

Umaru Shehu served as the leading adviser on the Polio Eradication Initiative in Nigeria . In 2003 five northern Nigerian states boycotted the oral polio vaccine due to fears that it was unsafe. Shehu was the person the federal government turned to in search of a solution. He was invited to help address misconceptions about the polio vaccine. As a specialist with over 40 years of experience in disease prevention and eradication, he was one of the northern experts who certified the oral polio vaccine safe and effective.

He was appointed leader of a team comprising traditional rulers, Islamic religious clerics, academic scientists and lay community leaders that was mandated to visit Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia which have fully accepted the polio vaccines. This was done to dispel the unfounded claims that polio vaccines were laced with family planning agents as well as HIV. It was the report of that committee that persuaded the states to withdraw their ban on the vaccines. The ban had a major negative impact on routine immunisation.

Passion for work

He will also be missed due to his passion for work and forward-looking disposition. In 1994 there was a serious epidemic of meningitis in neighbouring Niger Republic, and the World Health Organization had advised Nigeria to prepare for a similar outbreak. Consequently, he ordered and stocked nearly two million doses of meningitis vaccines. Unsurprisingly, Nigeria in 1996 recorded an epidemic of the disease. It was the vaccines he ordered that the country used in battling the disease.

Leadership journey

He moved to the Ahmadu Bello University as associate professor of community medicine in 1968. During his time there, he was appointed director of the Institute of Health by the then vice-chancellor, Professor Ishaya Audu. He played a significant role in establishing the medical school in the university in 1967 .

At the time, there was no standard teaching hospital that was up to the mark for clinical training of medical students. Consequently, the school authorities had to approach the Kaduna State government to allow the new school to use three hospitals. General Hospitals in Zaria and Kaduna, and the Rural Health Centre, Malumfashi were approved for the necessary clinical teaching.

The Institute of Health under Shehu assumed the responsibilities for running the hospitals. That arrangement remained in force for nearly 50 years because the designed teaching hospital was never completed. The university's clinical departments decided to move to the new site anyway, and the university returned the three “borrowed” hospitals to the Kaduna State government.

Shehu was suddenly appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria Nsukka in 1978, a position he reluctantly accepted. He left in 1979 after just one academic session and joined the WHO. He had earlier served as a temporary consultant to the world health body before he was appointed Nigeria country representative.

The interaction between him and the late Olikoye Ransome-Kuti , a professor of paediatrics and Nigeria's health minister between 1985 and 1992, was highly synergistic. It brought about many positive strides for the country's health system, especially primary healthcare.

Education

His education began at the Borno Middle School. He was then admitted to Kaduna College, which became the famous Barewa College , Zaria. Established in 1921, this secondary school produced the who's who of northern Nigeria. His classmates included the late Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero , Yusuf Maitama Sule , Nigeria's former permanent representative to the United Nations, Waziri Ibrahim (the politician known for his mantra “politics without bitterness”) and Sir Kashim Ibrahim , the first indigenous governor of northern Nigeria.

Shehu was among the foundation students of University College Ibadan in 1948, where he studied medicine. At that time medical students usually proceeded to the UK for clinical studies. Thus, he graduated MB BS London in 1953 (some unverified accounts say 1956). He returned home to serve in the first republic administration of northern Nigeria, and was initially posted as medical officer in hospitals in various towns. He was later moved to the Ministry of Health headquarters, Kaduna, as medical officer of health. This was a public health assignment and he issued the very first region-wide circular mandating routine immunisation in 1965.

A man of many parts

He was a Foundation Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science when it started in 1977. He later served as its president between 1981 and 1983 . He was also the first emeritus professor in northern Nigeria, appointed by the University of Maiduguri. He also served as chairman of the governing board of the Nigerian National Merit Award, which assesses academics and professionals for the Nigerian National Order of Merit. He was pro-chancellor and chairman of the governing councils of Bayero University Kano and the University of Lagos. In addition, he chaired the National Action Committee on Aids, and the Institute of Human Virology.

On a personal note, when I was about to lose my placement in the UK for further postgraduate training, he and the late Dr Hamza Zayyad, then bursar, persuaded the vice-chancellor to facilitate my immediate dispatch to London on 31 January 1972. I will never forget this career-saving gesture.

Idris Mohammed does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

By Idris Mohammed, Professor Emeritus, Gombe State University

body-container-line