Africa eradicates wild poliovirus

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The independent Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for Polio Eradication officially declared on Tuesday, August 25, that the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region is free of wild poliovirus.
This marks the eradication of the second virus from the face of the continent since smallpox 40 years ago.
“Today is a historic day for Africa. The African Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for Polio eradication (ARCC) is 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,” said Professor Rose Gana Fomban Leke, ARCC Chairperson.
The ARCC’s decision comes after an exhaustive, decades-long process of documentation and analysis of polio surveillance, immunization and laboratory capacity of the region’s 47 member states, which included conducting field verification visits to each country.
In 1996, African Heads of State committed to eradicate polio during the Thirty-Second Ordinary Session of the Organization of African Unity in Yaoundé, Cameroon. At the time, polio was paralysing an estimated 75,000 children, annually, on the African continent.
In the same year, Nelson Mandela with the support of Rotary International jumpstarted Africa’s commitment to polio eradication with the launch of the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign. Mandela’s call mobilized African nations and leaders across the continent to step up their efforts to reach every child with polio vaccine.
The last case of wild poliovirus in the region was detected in 2016 in Nigeria. Since 1996, polio eradication efforts have prevented up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis and saved approximately 180 000 lives.
The WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom in his remarks congratulated the government and people of Africa on this historic occassion. “The substantial investments we have all made in defeating polio have delivered a rich reward” he said. He called for continued use of the investments to address other health needs beyond the wild poliovirus eradication from the region. “The end of wild polio in Africa is a great day. But as we all know, it’s not the end of polio” he further said while highlighting that as long as the virus is present in Pakistan and Afghanistan, then it is a global threat. He therefore called upon all present to continue to support resource mobilization to strengthen health systems, train health workers, sustain outreach services and for community mobilization and engagement.
In his address, President Muhammed Buhari reminisced on his pledge on assuming office that he will not bequeath a polio infected country to his successor and expressed his happiness at being able to fulfill that commitment today. He joined the previous speakers to congratulate all the persons who made this possible while appealing for sustained polio surveillance and immunization even after the eradication of the disease from the region. “We must continue to vaccinate our children because vaccines save lives” he remarked. He concluded by assuring the global community that Nigeria will sustain the gains of the GPEI and use the lessons learnt to strengthen its health system.
Rotary members have played an invaluable role in the effort to rid the African region of wild polio. Holger Knaack, President of Rotary International said that this progress is the result of a decades-long effort across the 47 countries of the African region. “It has involved millions of health workers traveling by foot, boat, bike and bus, innovative strategies to vaccinate children amid conflict and insecurity, and a huge disease surveillance network to test cases of paralysis and check sewage for the virus,” the president said.
“Over the last two decades, countless Rotary members in countries across the African region and around the world have worked together to raise funds, immunize children, advocate with local and national leaders, and raise awareness about the importance of vaccination, enabling the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) to effectively respond to and stop polio outbreaks,” the president added.
He also called on Rotarians to finish the fight to eradicate polio from the face of the earth. “We are calling on you today to recommit yourselves to ending polio. We need each and every one of you to help finish this fight and continue raising $50 million each year for PolioPlus. The eradication of wild polio in the African region shows us that polio eradication is achievable, and shows how our hard work, partnerships and financial commitment continue to propel us forward, even during a global pandemic.”
“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 from the WHO African Region is a major achievement, 16 countries in the region are currently experiencing cVDPV2 outbreaks, which can occur in under-immunized communities.
“Africa has demonstrated that despite weak health systems, significant logistical and operational challenges across the continent, African countries have collaborated very effectively in eradicating wild polio virus,” said Dr Pascal Mkanda, Coordinator of WHO Polio Eradication Programme in the African Region.
“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,” added Dr Mkanda.
“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.