25th August 2020
Africa has eradicated wild poliovirus
Africa has been declared free of wild polio, the second human virus to be eradicated from the continent since smallpox 40 years ago.
In 1998, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Regional Director for Africa appointed a 16-member group – the Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for Polio Eradication. This would serve as the only body able to certify that the African region had eradicated the wild poliovirus and was given a mandate to oversee this process. Today, the ARCC officially declared that the African continent is free of wild poliovirus.
"Today is a historic day for Africa," said Rose Leke, ARCC Chairperson and an Emeritus Professor of Immunology and Parasitology. "We are pleased to announce 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 ARCC's decision comes after an exhaustive, decades-long process of documentation and analysis of polio surveillance, immunisation and laboratory capacity of the region's 47 member states, which included field verification visits to each country.
In 1996, during the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Organisation of African Unity in Cameroon, African Heads of State committed to eradicate polio. At the time, polio was paralysing an estimated 75,000 children every year on the African continent.
In the same year, Nelson Mandela with support from Rotary International jumpstarted Africa's commitment to polio eradication with the launch of the "Kick Polio Out of Africa" campaign. Mandela's call mobilised African nations and leaders to step up their efforts to provide every child with a polio vaccination.
Since 1996, polio eradication efforts have prevented up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis and saved 180,000 lives. Nigeria reported the last case of wild poliovirus on the continent in 2016.
"This is a momentous milestone for Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. "This historic achievement was only possible thanks to the leadership and commitment of governments, communities, global polio eradication partners and philanthropists. I pay special tribute to the frontline health workers and vaccinators, some of whom lost their lives, for this noble cause."
"However, we must stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence of the wild poliovirus and address the continued threat of the vaccine-derived polio," said Dr Moeti.
While the eradication of wild poliovirus is a major achievement, 16 countries in Africa are currently experiencing outbreaks of cVDPV2 – rare strains of poliovirus that have genetically mutated from the strain contained in the oral polio vaccine. These circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses can occur in under-immunised communities after being present for at least 12 months. If a population is fully immunised against polio, however, it will be protected against the spread of both wild and vaccine strains of poliovirus.
"Africa has demonstrated that despite weak health systems, and significant logistical and operational challenges across the continent, African countries have collaborated very effectively in eradicating wild poliovirus," said Dr Pascal Mkanda, Coordinator of the WHO Polio Eradication Programme in Africa. "With the innovations and expertise that the polio programme has established, I am confident that we can sustain the gains, post-certification, and eliminate cVDPV2."
"The expertise gained from polio eradication will continue to assist the African region in tackling COVID-19 and other health problems that have plagued the continent for so many years, and ultimately move the continent toward universal health coverage. This will be the true legacy of polio eradication in Africa," said Dr Moeti.
Worldwide, only two countries now continue to experience wild poliovirus transmission: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since the global effort to eradicate the disease began in 1988, led by the WHO, UNICEF and Rotary Foundation, the number of cases diagnosed around the world each year has fallen by 99.9%. So far, the only diseases 100% eradicated by humankind are smallpox (officially wiped out in 1980) and rinderpest (a viral disease of cattle, eliminated in 2011). It seems that polio will soon join the list.