Africa declared free from wild polio

By Vatican News

The African continent is now free from cases of wild polio, as global efforts to completely eradicate the virus continue to move in the right direction. Currently, only two countries in the world – Afghanistan and Pakistan – still report cases of polio.

On Tuesday, the Africa Regional Committee for Certification (ARCC), an independent regional body set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO), concluded that the transmission of the wild poliovirus strain has been interrupted in all 47 countries of the WHO African Region. 

This certification comes after Nigeria, the last African country with polio cases, recorded no new cases for the past four consecutive years. This announcement means that five of the six WHO regions, representing 90 percent of the world’s population is polio-free.

Certification of polio eradication is done on a regional basis. A region is only eligible for certification after all countries in the area show proof of the absence of wild poliovirus for at least three consecutive years, and demonstrate a high standard of surveillance for any outbreaks.

Polio, a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease, has no cure but can be prevented by the administration of a vaccine. It is typically transmitted through contaminated water and usually affects children under five, sometimes leading to irreversible paralysis.

Combatting polio

By 1996, more than 75,000 children across Africa were affected by polio. That same year, the late Nelson Mandela launched the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” program which mobilized health workers and organisations to put in renewed efforts to ensure a polio-free Africa.

The final efforts to eradicate polio in Africa were concentrated largely on northeastern Nigeria after an outbreak was reported in 2016. Before that, the country had gone two years without any cases identified and had even been taken off the global list of polio-endemic countries in 2015.

Leading virologist and chairman of the Nigeria Expert Review Committee on Polio Eradication and Routine Immunization, Professor Oyewole Tomori, said that the country’s journey to eradicating polio began in 1977 when the WHO adopted the Universal Child Immunization Program. The goal, he explained at a press conference on Tuesday, was to vaccinate every child in the world against measles, tetanus, whooping cough and polio by 1990. However, by that deadline, Nigeria was barely able to achieve the 80 percent target.

Tomori explained some of the challenges to achieving this global health milestone include difficulty in accessing some areas in order to reach some populations, as well as a 2003 boycott of vaccines by some states in Nigeria due to unfounded rumors that they caused infertility. 

He recalled that in Kano state alone, approximately 3.7 million children went unvaccinated in 2004 due to the misinformation. The situation was further compounded by the outbreak of armed conflict in northern Nigeria which displaced millions of people. He said some of his colleagues were killed in the line of duty while trying to vaccinate children against polio.

Eradication: Looking ahead

This new certification does not mean that Africa is completely polio-free.

A vaccine-derived poliovirus – a rare mutated form of the virus – still remains in Africa with several dozen cases identified this year. Even though it is not the wild polio strain, it can still emerge among populations living in areas of low immunity.

In addition, immunization campaigns that have been effective in keeping numbers low have been significantly disrupted due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

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