United Nations declares Africa free of polio

LAGOS (AFP) – The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday declared that Africa was free of the virus that causes polio, a landmark in a decades-long campaign to eradicate the notorious disease around the world.

“Today is a historic day for Africa,” said Professor Rose Gana Fomban Leke, whose commission certified that no polio cases had occurred on the continent for the past four years, the threshold for eradication.

Poliovirus now joins smallpox on the list of viruses that have been wiped out in Africa, the WHO said.

Since 1996, eradication efforts “have prevented up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis and saved approximately 180,000 lives,” the United Nations (UN) agency said.

Poliomyelitis – the medical term for polio – is an acutely infectious and contagious virus which attacks the spinal cord and causes irreversible paralysis in children.

It was endemic around the world until a vaccine was found in the 1950s, though this remained out of reach for many poorer countries in Asia and Africa.

In 1988, when the WHO, UNICEF and Rotary launched the worldwide campaign to eradicate the disease, there were 350,000 cases globally. In 1996, there were more than 70,000 cases in Africa alone.

Thanks to a global effort and financial backing – some USD19 billion over 30 years – only Afghanistan and Pakistan have recorded cases this year: 87 in total.

Poliovirus is typically spread in the faeces of an infected person and is picked up through contaminated water or food.

Vaccinating people to prevent them from becoming infected thus breaks the cycle of transmission and eventually eradicates the virus in the wild.

The last case of polio in Africa was detected in 2016 in Nigeria, where vaccination had been violently opposed by extremists who claimed it was a plot to sterilise people.

More than 20 workers involved in the campaign lost their lives.

“This is a momentous milestone for Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio,” said WHO’s Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti.

“This historic achievement was only possible thanks to the leadership and commitment of governments, communities, global polio eradication partners and philanthropists,” Moeti said.

“I pay special tribute to the frontline health workers and vaccinators, some of whom lost their lives, for this noble cause.”

The declaration, made at a ministerial-level virtual conference on health issues in Africa, coincided with an announcement in Democratic Republic of Congo that a 25-month epidemic of measles that killed more than 7,000 children was now over, thanks to a massive immunisation effort.

Togo, meanwhile, said it had become the first African country to stop transmission of human African trypanosomiasis.

Health workers in Nigeria were jubilant at the polio announcement. “Happiness is an understatement. We’ve been on this marathon for over 30 years,” said a Nigerian doctor Tunji Funsho.

“It’s a real achievement, I feel joy and relief at the same time.”