Wild Polio Eradicated in 47 African Countries

Experts announced Tuesday that the disease, which can cause paralysis and death in young children, has been virtually eliminated from the continent

An illustrated close-up model of the poliovirus; a round ball of small, squiggly shapes that are purple, green and light pink. Virus framed against a white background
An illustration of the poliovirus, which causes polio Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In a historic milestone for public health, the independent Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) announced Tuesday that wild poliovirus has been eradicated from the 47 countries of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Africa region.

The continent reported its last case of wild polio four years ago, in Nigeria, reports Maria Godoy for NPR.

Polio continues to be transmitted in just two countries in the world: Pakistan and Afghanistan. With wild polio officially eradicated, more than 90 percent of the world’s population is now free from wild poliovirus, says the WHO in a statement.

“Today we come together to rejoice over a historic public health success, the certification of wild poliovirus eradication in the African region,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said during a livestreamed event, report Naomi Thomas and Aisha Salaudeen for CNN.

“Your success is the success of the world. None of us could have done this alone,” added Tedros, per CNN.

Polio, caused by the poliovirus, affects the nervous and muscle systems of young children and can cause paralysis and sometimes death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As Nicoletta Lanese reports for Live Science, there is no specific treatment for polio, but a full course of the vaccination can prove 99 percent effective at preventing the infection.

In 1996, the late South African president Nelson Mandela launched the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” campaign, a pan-African initiative to combat the virus, which at the time, was paralyzing nearly 75,000 children in the continent each year, the CDC reports.

With its PolioPlus program founded in 1985, Rotary International has been on the forefront of uniting efforts to elliminate polio on a global scale. Recent eradication efforts were led in large part by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), created in 1988, with partners including the WHO, UNICEF, the CDC and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Per CNN, Tedros reported during the livestreamed announcement that almost 9 billion polio vaccines have been delivered across the continent.

As Naomi Scherbel-Ball reports for BBC News, the final push for vaccination centered on the north-eastern state of Borno in Nigeria. The Boko Haram insurgency in the region stalled some vaccination efforts, and in some instances placed healthcare workers in danger.

Misbahu Lawan Didi, president of the Nigerian Polio Survivors Association, tells the BBC that survivors of polio played an important role in combating misinformation about the vaccine and promoting the campaign.

Speaking with Emmanuel Akinwotu of the Guardian, Didi adds, “[i]t is incredible that what we have started years ago has built these results. As polio survivors we are the happiest and believe we’ll be the last polio survivors in the country.”

The success of the campaign “is a vivid reminder that vaccines work and that the collective actions of communities, governments and partners can bring about tremendous changes,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, during the livestreamed celebration, reports NPR.

However, officials warn that the work of combatting polio is not finished. As CNN reports, the common oral vaccine used to combat poliovirus contains a weakened version of the poliovirus. In some low-immunity populations, this strain of the virus can spread, mutate and strengthen into the paralysis-causing strain.

Sixteen countries are currently experiencing small outbreaks of vaccine-derived poliovirus, the WHO says in its statement. Low-immunity regions are particularly at risk for this kind of outbreak, and the current COVID-19 pandemic has limited vaccination efforts in many regions.

Still, “[t]he small risk of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus pales in significance to the tremendous public health benefits associated with the oral polio vaccine,” the WHO notes on its website.

“The end of wild polio in Africa is a great day,” noted Tedros during the livestreamed event, per NPR. “But as we all know, it’s not the end of polio.”

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