Africa Officially Declared Free of Wild Poliovirus, Says WHO

The campaign to eradicate wild polio in Africa has succeeded, with no new cases for four years.
Brad Bergan

The World Health Organization declared Africa free of the wild poliovirus after a decades-long campaign to eliminate the infamous disease throughout the world, according to a Tuesday press release on the WHO's website.


Wild poliovirus gone from Africa, declares WHO

"Today is a historic day for Africa," said Professor Rose Gana Fomban Leke, part of the commission that certified there were no polio cases on the world's largest continent for four years — the crucial threshold for declaring a disease eradicated.

This comes on the heels of several other viruses, like smallpox, historically eradicated from Africa, said the WHO.

Many African countries have already gone years without new cases of wild polio (some since 1996), efforts to eliminate the virus "have prevented up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis and saved approximately 180,000 lives," said the UN agency, reports Science Alert.

Known in medical circles as poliomyelitis, the acutely infectious and contagious virus attacks human spinal cords, causing irreparable paralysis in children.

Long history of the campaign to eradicate wild polio

The illness plagued the world until a vaccine was discovered in the 1950s — but it was sadly priced out of reach for many poorer countries in Africa and Asia.

The WHO, UNICEF, and Rotary launched a global campaign to eliminate the disease in 1988, when there were 350,000 cases around the world. In 1996, 70,000 cases remained in Africa alone.

The global struggle to destroy the virus, along with financial support — roughly $19 billion over a 30-year period — has reduced the spread of wild polio, leaving Pakistan and Afghanistan as the only two nations to record new cases of the virus this year: 87 in total.

Jihadists threaten campaign to stop wild polio

Typically, wild polio spreads in the feces of infected people, and is dispersed via contaminated water and food, reports Science Alert. The only way to break the cycle of transmission is through vaccinating the population, thus eradicating the virus as it occurs in the wild.

The last recorded case of polio in Africa happened in 2016 in Nigeria, where vaccination was opposed with violence by jihadists who alleged it was a plot to sterilize Muslims. More than 20 workers assigned to the campaign died.

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"This is a momentous milestone for Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio," said the WHO's regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti.

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"This historic achievement was only possible thanks to the leadership and commitment of governments, communities, global polio eradication partners and philanthropists," said Moeti. "I pay special tribute to the frontline health workers and vaccinators, some of whom lost their lives, for this noble cause."

This declaration was made at a ministerial-level virtual conference about health concerns in Africa, and coincided with an announcement in the Democratic Republic of Congo that a 25-month epidemic of measles — responsible for killing more than 7,000 children — was also over, after a massive immunization campaign.

As the coronavirus crisis continues to sap global immunization efforts, it's heartening to learn how some of the most long-standing illnesses afflicting Africa like wild polio are finally eradicated.

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