WHO Declares Africa Polio-Free

WHO Declares Africa Polio-Free

On the 25th August the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Africa free of the wild polio virus.

After decades of efforts and four consecutive years without a reported case, Polio has been officially declared eradicated from the African continent by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Polio is an infectious disease that mainly affects children, attacking the spinal cord and potentially causing irreversible paralysis. It was endemic disease throughout the world until a vaccine was discovered in the 1950s. This historic announcement proves “what can happen when partners from a variety of sectors join forces to accomplish a major global health goal,” [John Hewko, general secretary and CEO of Rotary International]. 

Indeed, it was Rotary, an international nonprofit service organization, that launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988. Since its first children’s vaccination project in the Philippines in 1979, Rotary has reduced polio cases by 99.9 percent. It helped vaccinate over 2.5 billion children in 122 countries.

At the beginning of 2000, 76 million children of 17 countries were vaccinated by tens of thousands of volunteers. The work fanned out across the continent with a heavy push from 2008 to 2010, to face the outbreak, which had occurred in 24 countries of western and central Africa.

The battle against polio in Nigeria was more difficult. Therefore, Nigeria remained the only African nation where the disease was still endemic. Especially in the northern part of the country, in fact, religious leaders had shown resistance to vaccination, which they saw both as a western way to interfere in local affairs and an unsafe procedure. Those misconceptions have been refuted, partly thanks to Muhammad Sanusi II, the Emir of the city of Kano, who during a public ceremony before the kick off of a seasonal vaccination campaign in 2016, asked for a vial of polio vaccine and drank down its entire contents in front of the audience. That year, the country recorded its last case of polio.

What’s next?

Globally, wild polio case numbers have been cut drastically due to national and regional immunisation for babies and children. However, other challenges remain: the disease still remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As in the case of the African region, the eradication will can only be achieved through global commitment.