Africa now free from wild polio: A momentous milestone

Child in Africa being administered polio drugs
A child being administered Polio Drops. Africa has kicked out wild polio after decades of effort by multiple organisations

Africa has been declared free from wild polio, after decades of work by a coalition of international health bodies, national and local governments, community volunteers and survivors.

Four years after the last recorded cases of wild polio in northern Nigeria, the Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) on Tuesday certified that the continent is now free of the virus, which can cause irreversible paralysis and in some cases death.

The achievement is the result of a campaign to vaccinate and monitor children in Borno State, the final front of polio eradication efforts on the continent, and the heart of the jihadist insurgency in Nigeria.

Achievement comes following Nigeria vaccination drive, with last cases of wild virus recorded four years ago

“It’s been a momentous, massive undertaking, with amazing persistence and perseverance, coming in the face of moments when we thought we were just about there, then we’d have a reversal”

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director for Africa

The WHO, she said, had played a central coordinating role within the Global Polio Eradication Initiative – a coalition of national governments and local leaders working with Unicef, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with millions of community volunteers across the continent.

Improved surveillance, tackling violent levels of vaccine scepticism that fuelled deadly attacks on health workers, and the inclusion of polio survivors within eradication teams were key factors in wiping out the virus, said Moeti.

Reflection: Nelson Mandela initiated the challenge

This incredible public health achievement —the interruption of wild poliovirus transmission from every corner of the African region—began 24 years ago with a call-to-action by the late South African President Nelson Mandela. He challenged African heads of state and leaders to mobilize to “kick polio out of Africa.” At the time, 75,000 African children a year were being paralyzed by polio. Over many years and thanks to the dedicated efforts and sacrifices of health workers, community volunteers, traditional and religious leaders, parents, and country leadership with support from donors, all children, even those in the most remote and insecure areas, have been reached with the polio vaccine. Today, about 220 million children across the African region are immunized against polio every year.

Despite enormous challenges to reach every child with polio vaccine, a promise made in 1996 by African leaders has been a promise kept. In August 2019, Nigeria, the last wild polio endemic country in Africa, passed three consecutive years without a reported case of wild poliovirus, which opened the door for the official certification process to review data and documents from all 47 countries in the African region.

With the African region’s certification, five of the six WHO regions – representing over 90% of the world’s population – are now free of the wild polioviruses. However, these incredible gains can be fragile, especially as we operationalize the safe resumption of immunization and polio activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.