The World Health Organization African Region (WHO AFRO) is celebrating the one-year anniversary of certifying Africa free of wild polio on Wednesday. 

Coordinated efforts, close monitoring, and widespread vaccinations led to the historic feat — even more impressive when you take the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and its disruption of vaccine efforts, into account.

Though the battle against non-wild polio virus types and other diseases across the African continent continues, experts and advocates say the anniversary marks an incredible win for unified efforts, medicine, health workers, and volunteers. 

In 1988, the World Health Assembly formed the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) to eradicate polio by the year 2000. At the time, polio was endemic in 125 countries and paralyzed 350,000 children each year. The GPEI worked across borders, forming partnerships and task forces, to vaccinate children all over the world. With 400 million children vaccinated each year, the unified cause has led the global number of polio cases to fall by 99% since its creation. 

At the height of cases of polio in Africa in 1996, Nelson Mandela united governments against the disease and launched the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign. Since then, 9 billion doses of the oral polio vaccine have been distributed to children across the continent and after four years of zero recorded cases of wild polio, the African region was declared polio-free on Aug. 25, 2020. 

Through informed mapping and enhanced technological surveillance, volunteers and health workers across Africa were able to eliminate wild poliovirus. In 1996, the disease was paralyzing 75,000 children each year. Today, over 18 million cases have been prevented due to vaccines. 

Now, experts argue that governments and global polio program health ministers must make new commitments in the cause to end polio in all its forms for good. 

Cases of a non-wild variant of polio, cVDPV, are beginning to spread in areas of low vaccination rates. The variant is rare, only occurring in communities with poor sanitation and low immunization, but still poses a threat to the global cause to end polio. Recently, over 19 African countries have recorded cVDPV outbreaks due to reduced vaccination efforts driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.   

“There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated health initiatives across Africa and set back progress on immunization,” said Aliko Dangote, president of Dangote Industries, an African conglomerate which finances sustainability and self-sufficiency initiatives.  

WHO African Region and GPEI health officials met with global health leaders on Wednesday for the one-year anniversary and called for renewed commitments, in light of the recent outbreaks, and to ensure the complete eradication of polio. 

“Governments must continue to show strength and seize this incredible opportunity to end all forms of polio across Africa,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. 

The GPEI is urging governments and health ministers to support a widespread rollout of the new nOPV2 vaccine, a modified version of the previously used oral polio vaccine, which is being distributed to confront the rising issue of polio variants. 

The introduction of a new vaccine is not the only cause that needs support. Cases of the cVDPV variant are rare and spread through excrement in areas of low vaccination. Proper waste disposal, clean water, new vaccination efforts, and increasing the number of vaccinated children are all key to preventing variant spreading.  

COVID-19 disrupted routine vaccinations against wild polio and continues to threaten nations across Africa. With only 2% of Africa’s population of 1.3 billion people being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, health and vaccine programs are more important than ever. 

According to the WHO Africa, 4 in 5 people globally live in certified polio-free regions. But polio is still endemic in two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Africa still has a vital role to play in ending polio globally and must continue to reach children everywhere with polio vaccines,” said Mohamed Fall, the UNICEF regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa.


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Africa Has Officially Been Wild Polio-Free for 1 Year — But the Fight’s Not Over

By Kate Nakamura