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What Will You Change: Overcoming Polio, Health Disparities in Nigeria

Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate (Weekend Executive MBA & HSM ’06) is helping Nigeria to wipe out polio and improve primary health care.

Muhammad Pate
Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate
September 09, 2010

By Elizabeth Michalka — This article was originally published in the alumni magazine Team Fuqua.

The battle against polio in Nigeria—one of the only countries in Africa still fighting the virus—may soon be won, largely due to the leadership of Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate (Weekend Executive MBA & HSM ’06).

From January to July 2010, only six cases of the wild polio virus were confirmed in Nigeria, compared to 376 cases during the same period from 2009, as reported by the World Health Organization.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Pate says. “We hope to ultimately eradicate polio from Nigeria. We can’t let up yet because the virus could come back, and we don’t want a reemergence … polio can ruin a child’s life, and to think that can be changed with just two drops of a vaccine is very gratifying.”

The virus’s decline is attributed to a national effort of increased education, public awareness campaigns, social mobilization, and vaccine distribution improvements, led by Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA). The agency leads the country’s immunization program and “supports the promotion and implementation of high quality and sustainable primary health care.” Pate is Executive Director/CEO of the NPHCDA.

Since taking the reins in 2008, Pate prioritized restructuring the NPHCDA—collapsing silos and increasing integration resulted in greater efficiency and effectiveness, with the greatest impact being perhaps on the fight against polio.

“When I joined the agency I had to prioritize the issues, and polio was one of the main ones. I thought that by having a good rate of change there, we could create momentum for other programs,” Pate says.

One of the main hurdles to the immunization program in the past has been resistance by traditional, local, and religious leaders, due to distrust of the central government, explains Will Mitchell, Professor of International Management and Strategy at Fuqua.

“Muhammad has really pushed hard to create a strong shared value of the importance of immunization,” says Mitchell. “He’s spent a lot of time in the field, gaining people’s trust and understanding local needs.”

Last year, Mitchell helped Pate to further another initiative impacting primary health in Nigeria—training for mid-level health care managers. Pate, who is also an Adjunct Professor at the Duke Global Health Institute, proposed the program to fill a gap that existed in management training. This year, 83 participants are learning to utilize resources more effectively to improve operations and health outcomes.

“Based on the feedback and evaluations we’ve received so far from students, it’s been very successful. It’s very exciting because it’s opening up a new form of continued management education in Nigeria, which we hope to build upon,” Pate says.

The program will continue next year with support from the federal government and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. To prepare for that program, three of Pate’s team members visited Fuqua in August for two weeks to work with Mitchell on the curriculum and course materials.

“There has been a huge boost in confidence in the agency because we’re doing what we said we would do. These positive results will continue to translate to other projects,” Pate says. “It takes a whole country to make these changes, and Nigeria is now moving ahead. We have an African saying that if you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go with others.”

Story Update: Dr. Muhammad Pate was appointed as Nigeria's Minister of Health by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in July 2011.