On August 25th, Africa was officially certified free of wild poliovirus, a tremendous milestone that was decades in the making. According to the World Health Organization, Africa (WHO Africa), this is the second virus eradicated from the continent since smallpox 40 years ago. The AP reports that Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in which wild poliovirus remains.
The WHO estimated that in the 1990s, 75,000 African children were paralyzed by wild polio every year. In 1996, with support from Rotary International, Nelson Mandela started “Kick Polio Out of Africa,” uniting the continent to eradicate wild polio. Additionally, in 1996 the African heads of state united with the commitment to eliminate polio, further boosting efforts. Thanks to these efforts, the WHO reports that nine billion vaccines were provided to 220 million children (requiring multiple vaccines each year), preventing 1.8 million wild polio cases.
Professor Rose Gana Fomban Leke, chairperson of the African Regional Certification Commission for Polio eradication, stated to WHO Africa, “Today is a historic day for Africa.” She continued by saying that, “the Region has successfully met the certification criteria for wild polio eradication, with no cases of the wild poliovirus reported in the Region for four years.”
The AP reports that the last reported case of wild poliovirus in Africa occurred in Nigeria in 2016. However, the vaccine-derived poliovirus is still causing outbreaks in 16 African countries. According to the AP, this is a “rare mutated form of the weakened but live virus in the oral polio vaccine.”
Nevertheless, this is a monumental achievement for the 47 African regions impacted by wild poliovirus. WHO Africa and the Polio Global Eradication Initiative cite the “polio response teams” as key to this success. They state that the extensive network of healthcare workers, laboratory experts, data managers, and community volunteers worked on the frontlines to support and contain wild poliovirus outbreaks. Now, they report that this network has been vital to managing and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHO Africa cites seven critical features of the polio response program that “changed public health across the continent,” including data collection, reaching every child with vaccines, epidemiological surveillance networks, building the healthcare workforce, community health education, and accountability frameworks. WHO states that “the polio program’s impact on public health in Africa is unmatched,” and it has “transformed perceptions of what the future holds for health in Africa.”