In a historic announcement, the World Health Organization on Tuesday declared Africa has wiped off polio from the face of the continent.
For four years in a row, not a single case of wild poliovirus was documented from Nigeria, the global hotspot for the virus which has affected millions in the continent.
Polio, which is caused by the poliovirus, is a disabling disease that usually affects children below the age of five, which targets the spinal cord, paralyzing the individual. In some cases when the breathing muscles are affected, the disease can be fatal.
As of now, there is no cure for the virus once it infects, but vaccination (usually oral) at a stipulated young age can prevent the disease from kicking in.
“Today is a historic day for Africa,” Professor Rose Gana Fomban Leke, ARCC Chairperson told in a media statement.
“The African Regional Certification Commission for Polio eradication (ARCC) is pleased to announce that the Region has successfully met the certification criteria for wild polio eradication, with no cases of the wild poliovirus reported in the Region for four years.”
One step closer
Eradicating wild polio from Africa comes 40-years after smallpox was wiped off from the face of Africa and earth. In 1996, 75,000 children were said to be infected from the virus, prompting the then Nelson Mandela government to launch a vaccine program dubbed “Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign.”
But the virus was not gone and it continued to affect thousands of children in Nigeria to an extent Nigeria accounted for half of the poliovirus deaths in the world.
According to WHO, The ARCC’s decision to declare the continent polio-free comes after years of observation, polio surveillance, immunization, and laboratory capacity from the 47 member states.
Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said: “This is a momentous milestone for Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio.”
“This historic achievement was only possible thanks to the leadership and commitment of governments, communities, global polio eradication partners, and philanthropists. I pay special tribute to the frontline health workers and vaccinators, some of whom lost their lives, for this noble cause.”
Not straight though
The road to polio vaccination in Nigeria, however, was certainly not straight.
From time to time, the government in power had to face setbacks in vaccinating children, sometimes because of invoked rumors, sometimes from violent militant groups attacking frontline workers and skepticism among the public.
Nevertheless, the vaccine program finally triumphed in the continent, thanks to aggressive vaccination, and now polio has been wiped off from Nigeria. But the virus still prevails in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Current records say the world is on the brink of eradicating polio, with global caseload falling 99.9 percent since 1988. A number of public and private organizations back the global polio vaccine program including the CDC of the U.S. and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation among others.
While the wild polio is reportedly out, vaccine-derived polio turns out from time to time in the continent. This year, so far 177 cases of vaccine-derived polio have been reported.
“Ending wild poliovirus in Africa is one of the greatest public health achievements of our time and provides powerful inspiration for all of us to finish the job of eradicating polio globally,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.