Africa Declared Polio-Free After Long Fight Amid Coronavirus
Children play at the Huruma refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photographer: Boniface Mwangi/Bloomberg News)

Africa Declared Polio-Free After Long Fight Amid Coronavirus

Even as Africa grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the continent has eradicated another disease: wild polio.

Africa was declared free of the virus on Tuesday, with no new cases reported in the last four years, the Africa Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication said in a statement. Polio, a disease that mainly affects children under five years of age, sometimes causing irreversible paralysis or death, is now only endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“This is a momentous milestone for Africa,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa. “Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio,” she said.

Africa Declared Polio-Free After Long Fight Amid Coronavirus

The milestone paves the way for polio to become the second disease ever to be wiped out globally, after small pox. At one point, about $1 billion a year was being spent by partners of a worldwide eradication initiative, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the WHO and Rotary International, to stamp out the disease. The certification comes after a long process of surveillance, immunization and field verification visits to all member states in the region.

“The value of these efforts is incalculable,” Bill Gates said via video call at a certification ceremony. “They’ve not only helped us beat wild polio, they have also built a stronger public health infrastructure across Africa; one that has helped to fight Ebola and is playing a critical role against Covid-19.”

‘Stay Vigilant’

The decades-long push has faced several setbacks over the years. In 2016, Nigeria -- the last polio-endemic country in Africa at the time -- recorded a case of the wild polio virus in the insurgency-hit northeastern part of the country, setting back the clock after many believed the virus was set to be eradicated.

In Pakistan, which last year reported the biggest surge since 2014, anti-polio campaigns have been targeted by right-wing groups and militants who’ve attacked health workers. “We have a hard road ahead to eradicate the wild polio virus from Pakistan and Afghanistan,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the ceremony. “As long as polio persists anywhere, it’s a threat everywhere.”

The organization suspended polio vaccination campaigns to protect health workers from the coronavirus and free them to support the fight against the new disease, Ghebreyesus said in April.

Sixteen African countries face outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio, but only countries with what is called “wild polio virus” are considered endemic. While rare, the vaccine-derived strand can occur when the weakened live virus in the oral polio vaccine passes among under-immunized populations.

“We must stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence,” Moeti said. “The expertise gained from polio eradication will continue to assist the African region in tackling Covid-19 and other health problems that have plagued the continent for so many years and ultimately move the continent toward universal health coverage.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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