Africa could be declared polio-free in the coming months, the director of polio eradication for the World Health Organization (WHO) announced this week.
To officially confirm a continent or country has eliminated polio, there must be no wild cases of poliovirus for three years.
Now that Nigeria, which was the last endemic country in Africa, has had no reported cases since August 2016, the continent is just months away from being declared polio-free.
“We have succeeded probably [in wiping out the disease] in Africa, although that hasn’t been formally confirmed. We believe Nigeria no longer harbors the wild virus,” Michel Zaffran, director of polio eradication at the WHO, told the Telegraph.
This is encouraging news overall, as polio elimination efforts in northeastern Nigeria were once stalled due to conflict in the area. The presence of violence made it too dangerous for health workers to continue their vaccination efforts in the region for some time.
Accessibility in conflict-ridden areas is made difficult for health workers. This is a current obstacle for vaccinators in Pakistan, where 27 wild polio cases have been reported this year. The country saw only 12 cases in all of 2018.
Wild polio cases remain only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the latter of which has had 10 reported cases this year.
Wild poliovirus weekly case update from @WHO: Two new cases in Afghanistan and three new cases in Pakistan.— Michel Zaffran (@michelzaffran) June 28, 2019
In 2019: #Afghanistan: 10, #Pakistan: 27
(In 2018: Afghanistan: 21, Pakistan: 12)
Lack of clean water and sanitation has impeded progress in both countries’ elimination initiatives, but conflict and misinformation have been especially destructive in Pakistan this year, where multiple health workers were attacked in April.
“Access limitations due to insecurity continue to represent the biggest threat to polio eradication and progress towards interrupting transmission has stalled,” an external review for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative stated in 2018.
Zaffran explained that it also becomes harder to encourage vaccine efforts when cases decrease.
“Parents are saying, ‘Why do you keep coming to my house when there is no polio here and we have no water or sanitation and my children are falling sick with measles and other diseases?’” he said.
Polio eradication efforts have been important not just in the fight against this paralyzing disease, but they have served to inform the ways in which the world responds to other outbreaks, like Ebola and Zika, too.
“We need to continue not only surveillance in about 50 to 60 countries but also continue to vaccinate 500 million children against the disease. Keeping up vaccination is really important because if the virus was to get into a country like Yemen or the Central African Republic, we would have outbreaks and a re-establishment of the disease,” Zaffran said.
The world has successfully eradicated just one human disease: smallpox. This was in large part due to intense vaccination efforts. If funding for polio eradication continues and successes like that of ridding Africa of polio are any indication, the world could be on its way to eradicating its second disease.