The wild poliovirus, better known as polio, was officially declared “eradicated” from the African continent by the World Health Organization on Tuesday, after four consecutive years without a declared case and massive efforts to vaccinate children.
“This is a historic moment for Africa,” said WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti. “From now on, children born on this continent will not have to worry about being infected with polio.”
The official announcement brought together the director general of the WHO, the Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, its regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, the Nigerian billionaires and philanthropists Aliko Dangote and American Bill Gates.
This victory is however tarnished by the fact that the problem of the wild virus has been replaced by another: the circulation of vaccine viruses (mutated). Vaccines have certainly made it possible to reduce cases of paralysis by more than 99%, but some offer the possibility of a second life for the virus.
It normally takes three years without a declared case to obtain certification from the WHO, but the UN organization has preferred to wait four years this time, “to be 100% sure that there is no longer any danger”, explains the doctor.
Caused by wild poliovirus, poliomyelitis is an acute, contagious infectious disease that mainly affects children, attacks the spinal cord and can cause irreversible paralysis.
It was endemic all over the world, until a vaccine was discovered in the 1950s.
In 1988, the WHO counted 350,000 cases worldwide and still more than 70,000 cases in Africa alone in 1996.
But thanks to a rare collective awareness and to significant financial efforts (19 billion dollars over 30 years), only two countries in the world today have contaminations by the wild poliovirus: Afghanistan (29 cases in 2020 ) and Pakistan (58 cases).
Epicenter of the disease in the world at the beginning of the 2000s, Nigeria, an African giant of 200 million inhabitants, was still very recently on their side.
It took a lot of work with traditional and religious leaders to convince people to have their children vaccinated.
However, in 2009 the emergence of the conflict against Boko Haram dampened hopes of having finally eradicated the disease: in 2016, four new cases of polio were recorded in Borno State (North-East), home of the disease. jihadist insurgency.
“At the time, around 400,000 children were beyond the reach of any medical campaign because of the violence,” recalls Dr Funsho.
Today, it is estimated that only 30,000 children are still “inaccessible”: a figure “too low” to ensure epidemic transmission, according to scientific experts.