AMBASSADOR LEONARD: Secretary Blinken, colleagues, friends, Dr. Shuaib, Professor Ahmed, welcome. I’m Mary Beth Leonard, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, and it’s my honor to welcome the U.S. Secretary of State, albeit virtually, to Nigeria, and a big thank you to everyone joining us for this virtual event.
Mr. Secretary, here at U.S. Mission Nigeria, we are so immensely proud of our partnership with the Nigerian Government and the health sector. Our assistance saves lives every day. COVID-19 presented new challenges and the United States responded, contributing more than $73 million in equipment and technical assistance since the start of the pandemic. Mr. Secretary, we’re honored to have you with us and for the opportunity to share with you a bit about our partnership in health.
So without further ado, I would like to turn the virtual mike over to Mr. Tony Blinken, the United States 71st Secretary of State.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you all for joining us for this conversation, and let me start by thanking you, Ambassador Leonard. Deeply appreciate all the work that you’re doing and for helping to bring us together today. And Dr. Shuaib from Nigeria’s Primary Health Care Development Agency, Professor Ahmed from the Federal Medical Center in Abuja, everyone who contributes to the health partnership between Nigeria and United States, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Let me just say a few words to get us started, and I’m eager to hear from some of our friends today, but at the outset, the relationship between Nigeria and the United States covers a vast array of issues that are vital to both the Nigerian and the American people. A key issue that we’ve worked on together for years is health. Together, we’ve reached more than 60 million Nigerians through programs that train public health workers, invest in medical facilities, and improve access to medicines, vaccines, reproductive health care.
More than 1.3 million people with HIV/AIDS are on lifesaving treatment through the U.S. program to combat HIV/AIDS around the world, PEPFAR. And what a remarkable achievement that the program is rapidly closing in on an epidemic – on epidemic control, excuse me, over the next two years in Nigeria. Together, we’ve brought child death rates from malaria down 16 percent. That’s a remarkable achievement. And last year, the World Health Organization officially declared Nigeria wild poliovirus-free, an outstanding accomplishment by tireless frontline workers whom the United States was proud to support through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
Now, of course, we’re facing another health crisis together. The COVID-19 pandemic won’t end for any country until it ends for all countries. Otherwise, the virus will keep replicating around the world and turning into new variants. People will keep getting sick and dying, and we won’t be able to safely reopen our economies or travel around the world for business and tourism the way we used to. That’s why the United States is committed to helping end the pandemic in Nigeria and everywhere.
We’ve contributed $2 billion to COVAX, the global Covid vaccine initiative. We promised another two billion between now and 2022 as other countries also raise their ambitions. I’m very pleased that COVID-19 vaccines provided by COVAX have arrived in Nigeria. And I’m proud that dozens of people from the U.S. Government have been working with local and national partners in Nigeria to respond to COVID-19 from the beginning of the pandemic. We’re collaborating on epidemiology, outbreak response, lab operations, data analytics, vaccine deployment. It’s a continuation of our $5 billion investment in our decades-long partnership in public health, and it’s a testament to the strong and respectful relationship that we’ve built over the years between our countries and between the Nigerian and American people. When crises strike, we’re there for each other.
In the months and years ahead, our ability to collaborate to improve the health of all Nigerians will be vital. That’s why today’s conversation is important. I want to convey to all of you how grateful and proud the United States is of our partnership in health with Nigeria, and I want to learn more about our work together because it’s as urgent as ever.
With that, let me pass the microphone back to you, Ambassador Leonard, to lead our conversation.
AMBASSADOR LEONARD: Thank you so much, Secretary Blinken. Now I’d like to introduce Dr. Shuaib, who is the executive director and CEO of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency in Nigeria. Dr. Shuaib is a longtime friend and partner of the U.S. mission in virtually all aspects of our health programs. Nearly four million vaccine doses from the COVAX facility arrived in Nigeria on March 2, and to date, over 1.4 million people have been vaccinated. It’s Dr. Shuaib’s agency that oversees the provision of vaccines to Nigerians, so Dr. Shuaib, thank you for taking the time to join us, and over to you.
MR SHUAIB: Thank you very much, Madam Ambassador, and thank you very much, Secretary Blinken, for the honor of being a part of this program. As of today, we have been able to vaccinate up to 1.4 million Nigerians with the COVAX – with the COVID-19 vaccine. That is just 500,000 people shy of the two million people we want to vaccinate in the first phase. Because we have been able to get four million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine – the AstraZeneca vaccine – we plan to give both doses to those individuals pending when we get additional vaccines.
We are keenly aware that when Nigeria got four million doses as a result of the collaboration through the COVAX facility, which couldn’t have been possible without the support of the U.S. Government, we know that many other countries still haven’t accessed the vaccine. This is why the collaboration of the U.S. Government with many other governments under the platform of COVAX is very, very critical if we are going to end this pandemic.
We are very pleased to announce that as a result of the collaboration with the U.S. CDC, we’ve been able to come up with a hybrid solution in terms of our rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. So not only are we using traditional metrics by asking our health workers to come to the health facility and get their vaccines, but we’ve also learned from what has happened in the United States in terms of using electronic data, technology to invite people to schedule their vaccinations. And because of the support from the AFENET and the U.S. CDC, as it were, we’ve been able to push these types of technology so that in the future we’ll be able to have a routine immunization data system that will have learned from the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines.
One thing that we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks has been a gradual overcoming of vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy, as you’re well aware, is a global phenomenon, and the same types of solutions are required: that we do not dismiss their concerns, that we do not ridicule people who have questions, but that we listen, that inasmuch as we’re offering the vaccines we’ll also take the time to explain, to provide information to this vaccine hesitance. And that is what we see is beginning make us turn the corner in terms of this vaccine hesitancy.
We’ve learned a lot from the polio eradication program. Again, the United States has been a very strong partner in that amazing and compelling story of how partnership and solidarity can help us overcome COVID-19, just like we’ve done with the wild polio viruses. We’ve been able to mobilize community leaders, local leaders, religious leaders to speak in favor of COVID-19 vaccines, and also offer themselves to take the vaccines. Lessons from wild polio virus eradication is going to be very instrumental in how we end up strengthening primary health care. And the collaboration between our governments is very, very key.
In the next few months, hopefully by the end of July, we’re hoping to roll out a summit on primary health care and health system strengthening. And I’m hopeful that along the lines of the decades of collaboration in the health sector that exist between the United States and Nigeria, that we’ll be able to invite our partners around the table to help us strengthen the health system in Nigeria so that with every crisis, we don’t have to worry about the number of people who are going to lose their lives.
So I’m really, really appreciative, and I bring you greetings from the federal minister of health, and I hope that this engagement today will just be the beginning, honorable Secretary, so that we can continue to have conversations around how we can strengthen our partnership and improve the health of our citizens. Thank you very much for this opportunity.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Doctor, thank you both for your leadership, the collaboration, and I think the great wisdom you’re bringing to this. And I think for all of us, drawing the lessons of past experience and applying them to the challenges we’re facing today, looking at best practices, all of that is the way we make progress. So I’m really grateful for what you’re doing and the way you’re doing it.
AMBASSADOR LEONARD: Indeed. Thank you, Dr. Shuaib. Mr. Secretary, I’d now like to introduce Dr. Chukwu, the head of the Department for Internal Medicine at the Federal Medical Center in Abuja. Dr. Chukwu plays a leadership role in encouraging health workers to get vaccinated. As a side note, after attending medical school in Nigeria, she came to the United States, completing her residency in internal medicine at Michigan State University, and a fellowship in endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at the University of Washington. As U.S. ambassador, I’m so thrilled she brought her talents and medical knowledge back to Nigeria and the FMC. So Mr. Secretary, over to you and to Dr. Chukwu.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, doctor, thank you. Thanks for joining us today. And thank you for your service. On vaccines, I understand that just like in the United States and around the world, Nigeria is dealing with some misinformation that makes people reluctant to get vaccinated. And we just heard from our colleague about some of the efforts underway to deal with that challenge. But I’m curious for your view on what we can do to encourage Nigerians, especially health workers, to get the vaccine. What have you found to be most effective?
MS CHUKWU: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Being at the forefront of COVID-19, we saw the devastation caused by COVID-19. So when the vaccine came out, it was very exhilarating and exciting. We started in our hospital with vaccinating our CMD, Professor Saad, and the heads of department so that we are able to encourage other health care workers to get vaccinated, because with that, it gave us a lot of confidence to be able to take care of our patients.
We saw with great scare how people died and how health care workers were very much afraid of COVID-19. But now, with the vaccine, we are more confident and able to give our patients the best care that they require.
So the saying says do as you preach. So we got ourselves vaccinated first, giving our own health care workers the example needed. And we’re also able to communicate and have continued to communicate with them about the continued need for all of them to get vaccinated so that we can all get herd immunity and be able to take care of our patients.
Apart from even the health care workers, we have been able to also communicate with leaders in the country, and the church leaders, the Muslim leaders, to talk to our people so that the misinformation about the vaccination is reduced. And now a lot of people are coming out to take their vaccines.
And we’ve also made it seamlessly possible for them to get vaccinated. We’ve reduced the wait time for them; even for those of them who were not able to register online, when they come to the site, we are able to register them so that everybody gets vaccinated.
Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, doctor, thank you so much. And I’ve got to say, I know we’ve had the same experience in both our countries. The frontline health care workers are literally heroic, and they have been throughout this pandemic. And it’s very, very good to hear what you had to say, and to see what works in terms of overcoming some of the hesitancy. So I’m really encouraged by that. And thank you for everything you’re doing every day.
MS CHUKWU: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Ambassador Leonard.
AMBASSADOR LEONARD: Thank you. And indeed, thank you so much, Dr. Chukwu, for taking the time to speak with us.
Nigeria’s prosperity depends on the health of its people. It depends on the health of all of its people. So equal access to health care is a hallmark to – of all of our health programs, ensuring that we reach the most vulnerable populations who may not otherwise seek health services due to stigma and discrimination.
So today we’re proud to have a beneficiary of our PEPFAR program, Peter Abang. The PEPFAR program has provided care and service to Peter for the past two years, and we will reach epidemic control because we are reaching people like you, Peter. Thank you for your courage and speaking with us today.
Mr. Secretary, I know you will be as inspired as I was to hear Peter’s story. Over to you and Peter.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you, Ambassador, and Peter, thank you very, very much for being here. I want to ask you about PEPFAR because this program is so important to us, and I have to say, I think President Bush and his leadership in putting this program together is really one of the finest achievements in American foreign policy in recent years. It’s something I’m tremendously proud of as an American. But I don’t get enough opportunities myself to ask people who actually get services through PEPFAR what their experience is like. So I appreciate your willingness to share some of this with us today, but how have those services affected you and your own quality of life?
MR ABANG: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. My name is Peter Abang from Cross River State. I’m HIV-positive, 25 years old, a gay man. I came in contact with PEPFAR program in the year 2018, August 18. And ever since I have come in contact with PEPFAR program, it has been marvelous program in my life. PEPFAR program has transformed my life. I came in contact with them in a cold evening when I and my friend went out for a drink at the joints. So on reaching there, we saw a group of health workers having a moonlight testing. So my friend advised we should go have a test done to let us know our status. (Inaudible) day after they run the test, I became positive. I was devastated. I don’t know what to do. I thought my whole life has gone down.
But luckily for me, my friend never discriminated me. He never looked down at me. Rather, he was encouraging me. And the lady in charge of the test, she said that is not the end of the world if only I will agree to start my treatment immediately. The following day she called me to come to the community center, where they placed me on treatment. I followed my treatment. When I go there, I was so excited to see my community people, because it’s all just for you to see your fellow – your sexual partner in our country. But when I get to the community center, I saw people I love, people I would love to – I saw a new family that I never met before in the community center.
So I (inaudible) with the doctor, the lab scientists. They were so friendly to me. So I was like, if I just start this treatment, how will I be able to raise money to pay for the program, for the treatment during that? So they answered me, “Everything here is free.” I was like, wow. I’m so honored to be here, for everything to be free.
And along that line, I became – because I was ignorant of what I am. Because I’ve been living with this virus for the past how many years without noticing it. But PEPFAR program come into my life, they help me to realize that yes, this is what is troubling me and I have to take it up. And with that, I have a – I also have a problem. I have a partner that I don’t want to lose. So I don’t know how to tell my partner I’m HIV-positive. So when I returned to the doctor, the doctor collected my partner’s number and invited my partner, had my partner, and it’s done. So after the test my partner became positive, everything went well because he was placed on treatment.
The joy now is that my viral load is very suppressed in the sense that I cannot transmit it. PEPFAR program has helped me a lot in a sense that they organize a support group for us whereby we come together, we (inaudible), we play games, and they tell us more how our viral load collection will be taken and how to place a condom and lubricant with easy access to us. Because along the line I started bringing people from my community to the community center for them to know their status and to know where they belong. Because the more we – the more we keep on dying ignorant, the more the virus keeps spreading, but the more we get to know our status, the more we reduce the rate of virus in the community. And thank you so much. The program has been so wonderful to me because I end up being a community leader. I was employed through the help of this program. Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, my thanks to you, Peter, for sharing all of that. I deeply, deeply appreciate it, and I think your words as people hear them are going to have an impact on other lives. So I’m really grateful to you for sharing that and really thankful as well that we could be part of this and we could be helpful.
AMBASSADOR LEONARD: Yes, indeed. Thank you, Peter, so much for sharing your story with us. And we hope others draw courage and strength from your example.
Mr. Secretary, I hope in this brief time you’ve been able to get a glimpse of the breadth and the depth of our health partnerships here in Nigeria. Before closing, I want to thank the Federal Medical Center facilitating this event and also thank Professor Ahmed, the chief medical director, and his team. Professor, thank you and over to you.
MR AHMED: Thank you, Ambassador. First, I want to thank the Secretary of State for visiting FMC Abuja, though virtually. We hope and pray that someday we will welcome you physically in our facility. FMC Abuja is one of the centers that are active against vaccination – against COVID-19, and over the years our staff have taken part in many community-linked programs of the U.S. Government in Nigeria, like in areas of routine immunization, HIV/AIDS, and maternal and child health services. I want to specifically thank the U.S. Government for donating a 40-bed negative pressure hospital, field hospital facility that has been installed in FMC Abuja for the management of infectious diseases. I want to say that FMC Abuja stands ready to collaborate with the U.S. Government in community-related health services in Nigeria. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Professor Ahmed, thank you. Thank you very much. And I want to thank everyone for making the time for this conversation today. I’m really humbled by the determination and courage of Nigeria’s health care workers. I’m very proud of the decades-long partnership in health and grateful to all the Nigerian and American people who’ve made it possible. I want you to know that the United States will keep standing with Nigeria to implement effective health care initiatives for the Nigerian people, and I’m confident we’ll keep achieving good things together.
Thank you all very, very much.
AMBASSADOR LEONARD: Oh, thank you. And we so appreciate the opportunity to share our progress and programs with you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you and thanks to all of you who participated today and for your work to improve the health of all Nigerian citizens. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you all.