A ‘Momentous Milestone’: Africa Finally Eradicates the Wild Polio Virus From its Continent, After Decades of Work

The World Health Organization is celebrating the news that the African continent is finally free of the wild poliovirus, 24 years after Nelson Mandela helped Rotary International launch its Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign.

“Today is a historic day for Africa, which has successfully met the certification criteria for wild polio eradication, with no cases reported in the region for four years,” said Professor Rose Gana Fomban Leke, who heads The African Regional Certification Commission for Polio eradication (ARCC).

The success comes after an exhaustive, decades-long process of documentation and analysis of polio surveillance and immunization of the region’s 47 member states, which included conducting field verification visits to each country.

In 1996, African leaders of every country committed to eradicate polio, at a time when the virus was paralyzing an estimated 75,000 children annually. While there is no cure for polio, the disease can be prevented through the administration of a simple and effective vaccine.

Mandela’s call that year mobilized African nations across the continent to step up their efforts to reach every child with the polio vaccine—and the last case of wild poliovirus was detected and defeated in 2016 in Nigeria.

Officials at WHO say the polio eradication efforts have prevented up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis and saved approximately 180,000 lives.

“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.”

The announcement Tuesday marks only the second eradication of a virus from the face of the Africa since smallpox 40 years ago.

While the eradication of wild poliovirus here is a major achievement, 16 African countries have reported cases of cVDPV2. While rare, these vaccine-derived polioviruses cases can occur when the weakened live virus used in the oral polio vaccine passes among under-immunized populations and, over time, changes to a form that can cause paralysis. If a population is adequately immunized with polio vaccines, it will be protected from both wild polio and circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses.

“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 poliovirus,” said Dr Pascal Mkanda, Coordinator of WHO Polio Eradication in the African Region.

“With the innovations and expertise that the polio program has established, I am confident that we can sustain the gains, post-certification, and eliminate cVDPV2,” added Dr Mkanda.

Thanks to the dedication of governments, the WHO, Rotary International, UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, polio cases have been reduced worldwide by 99.9% since 1988. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan still have cases of the wild virus.

“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. This will be the true legacy of polio eradication in Africa,” said Dr Moeti.