“Today we celebrate a polio-free Africa, the result of decades of vaccination, hard work, collaboration. Tomorrow we get back to work, to ensure wild polio does not come back. Together, we all can #EndPolio globally.’ — Aliko Dangote
The African Regional Certification Commission for Polio virus Eradication during a World Health Organization (WHO) event came four years after the continent’s last case was reported in northern Nigeria.
The independent body confirmed that all 47 countries in the WHO’s Africa region have eradicated the polio disease which is known to attack the nervous system and cause irreversible paralysis within hours.
According Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization’s Chairman, “This is one of the greatest achievements in public health history.
“Delivering polio vaccines to every child in the African region and wiping out the wild virus is no small feat, and the human resources, skills and experience gained in the process leave behind a legacy in how to tackle diseases and reach the poorest and most marginalised communities with lifesaving services,” Tedros and Holger Knaack, president of Rotary International, wrote in an opinion piece published in Al Jazeera.
What is polio virus?
Polio is a virus which spreads from person to person, usually through contaminated water. It can lead to paralysis by attacking the nervous system.
Polio usually affects children under five, sometimes leading to irreversible paralysis. Death can occur when breathing muscles are affected. Twenty-five years ago thousands of children in Africa were paralyzed by the virus.
However, the disease is now only found in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is no cure but the polio vaccine protects children for life.
More than 95% of Africa’s population has now been immunized. This was one of the conditions that the Africa Regional Certification Commission set before declaring the continent free from wild polio.
Wild polio cases in Nigeria
How did Africa eliminate wild polio?
According to BBC Africa, “polio vaccine was developed in 1952 by Dr Jonas Salk which gave hope that children could be protected from the disease”, also, “in 1961, Albert Sabin pioneered the oral polio vaccine which has been used in most national immunization programmes around the world.”
In 1996 polio virus paralyzed more than 75,000 children across the continent – every country was affected.
That year Nelson Mandela launched the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” programme, mobilizing millions of health workers who went village-to-village to hand-deliver vaccines.
It was backed by a coalition of groups including Rotary International which had spearheaded the polio vaccination drive from the 1980s.
Since 1996 billions of oral polio vaccines have been provided, averting an estimated 1.8 million cases of wild poliovirus.
How did Nigeria become free?
President Muhammadu Buhari, on Tuesday August 25, said Nigeria used data systems, community engagement and innovative technology to monitor and predict the occurrence of polio outbreaks as part of the country’s efforts to eliminate the disease.
The president disclosed this at the forum where Africa was formally certified wild polio virus free during the virtual session of the 70th World Health Organisation (WHO) regional committee for Africa.
In the statement by his spokesperson, Femi Adesina, Mr Buhari also commended billionaires Bill Gates and Aliko Dangote for their contributions to Nigeria’s successful fight against polio.
Read Mr Adesina’s full statement below.
“I recall that shortly after assuming office in May 2015, I made a pledge to Nigerians that I would not bequeath a polio-endemic country to my successor.
“This certification is, therefore, a personal fulfillment of that pledge to not only Nigerians, but to all Africans.
“At a time when the global community is battling the COVID-19 pandemic, this achievement strengthens my conviction that with the requisite political will, investments and strategies, as well as citizens’ commitment, we will flatten the epidemic curve.
“I can affirm the commitment of all African leaders to this course of action,” the president said in his remarks celebrating the historic feat.