The continent of Africa has been officially declared free of wild poliovirus on Tuesday by the African Regional Certification Commission, an independent group of public health and scientific experts.
This moment marks an important milestone in the fight against a debilitating and sometimes life-threatening disease that once affected 350,000 children per year.
"Ending wild poliovirus in Africa is one of the greatest public health achievements of our time and provides powerful inspiration for all of us to finish the job of eradicating polio globally," said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "I thank and congratulate the governments, health workers, community volunteers, traditional and religious leaders, and parents across the region who have worked together to kick wild polio out of Africa."
Nigeria was the last country in Africa with wild poliovirus, but Tuesday’s announcement comes four years after its last reported case, thanks to significant immunization efforts. Health workers managed to reach and monitor children around the country, including in Borno State, where eliminating the disease proved to be a challenge due to conflict in the region.
Polio efforts have not only led to the near eradication of the disease, but have also served as a roadmap when it comes to other global health crises — and will continue to provide lessons when tackling COVID-19.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988 as a public-private partnership dedicated to ending polio around the world.
The organization is coordinated by national governments and key partners: the WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Global coordination was vital in achieving this huge milestone. The GPEI said that coordinated efforts were needed to address many challenges, specifically immunizing children in areas with high levels of population movement, conflict and insecurity, and given that polio is able to spread quickly.
The wild form of the virus is now endemic in only Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there were only 176 reported cases of wild polio in 2019.
This now means that five of the six WHO regions, covering more than 90% of the world’s population, are now free of the wild poliovirus, according to GPEI.
"During a challenging year for global health, the certification of the African region as wild poliovirus-free is a sign of hope and progress that shows what can be accomplished through collaboration and perseverance," said Rotary International President Holger Knaack.
He added: "Today’s milestone tells us that polio eradication is possible, as long as the world remains committed to finishing the job. Let us work together to harness our collective energies to overcome the remaining challenges and fulfil our promise of a polio-free world."