He wild poliovirus better known by the name of polio has been officially declared “eradicated” from the African continent by World Health Organization (WHO), after four consecutive years with no reported cases and massive vaccination efforts for children.
“The African Region Certification Commission (ARCC), a WHO body, declared that the transmission of wild poliovirus was interrupted” in Africa, said its president Rose Leke. “This is a historic moment for Africa,” said WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti.
WHO made the announcement four years after the emergence of the recent cases in northeast Nigeria, a region devastated by a conflict against the Boko Haram jihadists.
“Thanks to the efforts of governments, health personnel and communities, more than 1.8 million children were saved” from this disease, the WHO said in a statement published before the official announcement.
The official announcement by videoconference brought together the director general of the WHO, the Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; its regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, and billionaires Nigerian philanthropists Aliko Dangote and American Bill Gates, among others.
“This is a tremendous victory, a relief,” said Dr. Tunjui Funshuo of the Polio Nigeria committee of Rotary International. “We have launched this challenge for more than 30 years. To say that I am happy is an understatement!” Exclaimed the Nigerian doctor, who has dedicated his life to this cause.
Caused by wild poliovirus (PVS), poliomyelitis is an acute and contagious infectious disease that mainly affects children, which attacks the spinal cord and is capable of causing irreversible paralysis.
Vaccine since the 1950s
It was endemic throughout the world until a vaccine in the 1950s. The richest countries had access to it quickly, but Asia and Africa remained infectious foci for a long time. In 1988, the WHO counted 350,000 cases worldwide, and more than 70,000 eight years later in Africa alone.
But thanks to unusual collective awareness and significant financial efforts ($ 19 billion over 30 years), only two countries in the world currently have wild poliovirus infections: Afghanistan (29 cases in 2020) and Pakistan (58 cases).
Hoaxes against vaccines
Until recently, Nigeria, a country of 200 million people, was also on that list. In the early 2000s it was still an epicenter for the disease. In the Muslim north, under pressure from Salafi circles, polio vaccination campaigns were halted between 2003 and 2004, due to a rumor that they were a tool in a large international plot to sterilize Muslims.
It took enormous work with traditional and religious leaders to convince the population to vaccinate their children. However, the emergence of the conflict with Boko Haram, in 2009, put an end to hopes of having eradicated the disease. In 2016, four new cases of poliomyelitis were detected in the state of Borno (northeast), the focus of the jihadist insurrection. “At that time, some 400,000 children had been left out of medical campaigns because of the violence,” recalled Dr Funsho.
Security remains extremely volatile in northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa (Iswap) group control large areas, especially around Lake Chad.
In “partially accessible” areas, vaccination campaigns were carried out under the protection of the army and self-defense militias, explained doctor Musa Idowu Audu, WHO coordinator for Borno State. In those totally controlled by the jihadists, the WHO and its partners contacted the population on the roads or in the markets, to form a network of “health informants” and “sentinels” who alerted if cases occurred.
Doctors killed for vaccinating
“We had to build a pact of trust with those populations, providing them with free medical care, for example,” Audu explained. About twenty medical employees and volunteers have died in recent years in northeastern Nigeria from this cause, Dr. Audu recalled.
Today, an estimated 30,000 children remain “inaccessible,” a figure “too low” for epidemic transmission to occur, experts say.