Health authorities have declared Africa free of wild polio, in what now experts hail as a momentous milestone for the continent.
The disease that mainly affects children under the age of fives years attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. Death can occur when breathing muscles are affected.
The disease has no cure but the polio vaccine protects children for life.
The Tuesday announcement by the African Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication is touted as a major step in the campaign to eradicate the crippling viral disease across the world and more especially countries most affected such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The declaration which was made during a World Health Organization (WHO) event came four years after the continent’s last case was reported in northern Nigeria.
Statistics indicate that Nigeria accounted for more than half of all global cases less than a decade ago.
Just like in many other countries, health officials in Nigeria faced a number of challenges during the vaccination campaign in the country as they had to travel to remote and dangerous places under threat from militant violence. Some lost their lives in the process.
Widespread rumours and misinformation about the vaccine also slowed down immunisation efforts.
The milestone to eradicate the disease in 47 countries in the WHO’s African region was hailed by health experts including WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“This is one of the greatest achievements in public health history,” he said.
Big day for my African brothers & sisters – our continent will be declared #polio-free. This is one of the greatest public health achievements, demonstrating that with science & solidarity we can beat viruses & save lives. https://t.co/JhijcErtwM
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) August 25, 2020
Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Africa director, called for a continuation in the efforts to protect children across the continent “against all forms of polio and other childhood diseases. We must take the lessons learned and best practices from eradicating wild polio virus to achieve Africa’s other public health goals and improve healthcare for all Africans.”
This is a momentous milestone for #Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild #polio!#poliofree #africakicksoutwildpolio #RC70AFRO https://t.co/zJ3GyJnHkA pic.twitter.com/e547eh8Vw9
— Dr Matshidiso Moeti (@MoetiTshidi) August 25, 2020
It’s however, important to note that the Tuesday declaration does not mean Africa is polio-free.
Cases remain of the so-called vaccine-derived polio virus, which is a rare mutated form of the weakened but live virus contained in the oral polio vaccine.
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According to experts, the mutated virus can spark crippling polio outbreaks, and 16 African countries are currently experiencing one.
“Today’s celebration must be tempered by the expanding scope of outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio and the broader impact related to coronavirus,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance as reported by WHO Africa on Twitter.
It’s also important to note that polio can be easily imported into a country that is polio free and from there it can spread rapidly among under-immunised populations.
This is said to have happened in Angola, which despite decades of civil war, defeated polio in 2001.
WHO urges that it is important countries remain vigilant and avoid complacency until there is global eradication.
According to the experts, for all types of polio to be eliminated, including vaccine-derived polio, vaccination efforts will need to continue alongside surveillance, to protect children from being paralysed by the disease in the coming years.