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Religious Sisters of Charity and the Battle against Polio in Nigeria

Compassion Centre thumbOn 25th August 2020, Nigerians woke up with the congratulatory press release from WHO and UNICEF to Nigeria on being declared free of the wild poliovirus. This was indeed a tremendous milestone against polio; a long-fought battle which has claimed many lives of children under 5 years old.

According to WHO, between 2006 and as recently as 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide but today Nigeria is free of poliovirus after three consecutive years since the last case was identified.

This great achievement would not have been accomplished without the collaborative efforts between government and Religious organizations, NGO, communities, families, churches, individuals etc.

The Religious Sisters of Charity played a pivotal role in the eradication of Poliovirus in Nigeria through preventive, rehabilitative and palliative health care services. In terms of polio vaccine coverage, Sisters carried out vaccination in the hospitals and in rural areas through mobile primary health care outreach in families, communities and churches. Most children vaccinated were from poor rural families living in areas difficult to access due to distance, insecurity or geography. The mobile primary health care outreach service provided platform on which health education and other health promotion programmes were delivered.

The area which has received minimal attention in poliovirus management remains the treatment of post-polio syndrome and paralysis. Quick throwback according to WHO shows that 1 in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and among those paralyzed, 5% - 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. Going by the history of poliovirus in Nigeria and the huge number of confirmed infections, one wonders what life would be like for polio survivors with regards post-polio syndrome and paralysis. What services are put in place for polio survivors in Nigeria? Those suffering from irreversible paralysis as a result of poliovirus infection are crawling on the floor with no money to purchase wheelchairs, artificial legs, crutches, calipers etc. Many of them resort to begging on the street.

Compassion Centre1

In the light of many challenges facing polio survivors in Nigeria, the Religious Sisters of Charity, discerned the pressing need to engage extensively in healthcare services which include supportive care of symptoms, physiotherapy, corrective surgery and rehabilitation.

Compassion Centre2Accordingly, the RSC began journeying with polio survivors on 3rd January 1992 when Religious Sisters of Charity arrived Compassion Centre which is located in Nkpogu, Trans Amadi, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. The Sisters under the administration of Sr. Pauline Butler (RSC) and Sr. Rosaleen Desmond (RSC) took over the management of 25 residents of differently able children. The majority of the children were affected by Polio Disease and were creeping on hands and knees while others had congenital deformities. All needed corrective surgery to release contracture of tendons to enable them stand up and walk. This is the most challenging part of the battle against poliomyelitis.

According to records, the Centre has carried out about one thousand corrective surgeries and thirty thousand physiotherapies. More than nineteen thousand children and adults have received crutches, about two hundred clients have received artificial legs, five hundred adults and children have been gifted with callipers (femur support) and shoes. The Centre has also provided wheel chairs to numerous clients.

In the area of education, five hundred children have graduated on scholarship from Sancta Maria Nursery and Primary School – the adjoining primary school – managed by the Religious Sisters of Charity. Of these numbers, about three hundred children have graduated with scholarships to secondary and tertiary institutions. Currently, Compassion Centre has one hundred children on scholarship both in Secondary and tertiary institutions. Meanwhile, most of the Compassion Centre graduates are currently working as senior staff at some multinational firms in Port-Harcourt Nigeria while some are professionals in different fields of experience.

Compassion Centre3Compassion Centre provides full medical support for the children in various ways. Poliovirus attacks the central nervous system which results in various forms of paralysis and for this case, the Centre arranges for surgical operation to correct these deformities and the surgeries are mostly successful. Most of the children in Compassion Centre are indigents and the Religious Sisters of Charity fund-raise for their surgeries, education and wellbeing. The Congregation is grateful to Intels Services Nigeria, other companies and individuals who donate generously to Compassion Centre which is sustained by donations.

There are also different programmes organized in the Centre such as creative and applied arts, catering and beading, choreography and learning of musical instruments, footballs and athletics, singing and swimming. These programmes provides wholistic care of the children for proper rehabilitation and integration into society.

Peter Lumati, a beneficiary tells his story. “It all started in August 1984, I was 6 years and 8 months when I arrived at Compassion Centre then called Compassion Home. A paradise, a new heaven, a place I, my parents and siblings never thought could change my life from being a common cripple in a community in Port Harcourt city to being a humanistic life changer. Well educated and sponsored by the Centre from my nursery school to my university. Athough my university education was not sponsored by the Compassion Centre but there were situations like inability to complete payment of school fees, etc. during the University days which the Compassion Centre assisted. Not only in one occasion but in many more occasions. In April 2004, I had my first job and best ever which had led to lots of developments in my life and the lives of over 70 physically challenged persons especially those who had passed through the Compassion Centre. However, if not for the idea of establishing the Compassion Centre, where would I have been and many others who are presently living a purposeful and meaningful lives? Only God has the answer. Thanks to the Religious Sisters of Charity, thanks to the past and present management of the Compassion Centre. God bless all your efforts. Amen.”

Since 1992 the Centre remains a succor to Polio survivors by educating and rehabilitating each physically challenged child according to his or her needs. The children are helped to develop a sense of self-worth and an awareness of the wider society. They are empowered with skills that will enable them to lead confidential and independent lives. Compassion Centre has achieved milestone during these years of service. Barrister Gaus Ogan, one of the beneficiaries of Compassion Centre puts it very well, “The Religious Sisters of Charity and Compassion Centre manages post disaster caused by polio and this is the core because they help the children to live with the trauma. I am the first child of the Centre and Compassion Centre played a fundamental role in who I am today. The Sisters helped me to survive and to me that is the greatest victory.” Gaus Ogan was one of the first group of children that received care in Compassion Centre and today he is a Barrister and happily married.

While we continue to celebrate the eradication of polio in Nigeria, there is greater need to be mindful of those suffering from paralysis and post-polio syndrome. The Federal Government of Nigeria, private institutions and individuals are invited to stand up to the enormous task of empowering polio survivors especially the less privileged using varied means and available resources.