WASHINGTON - All of Africa has reached a very important milestone. The World Health Organization has declared that the entire continent is now free of the wild poliovirus. This comes after four years without a single case.
With this historic milestone, five of the six WHO regions – representing over 90% of the world’s population – are now free of the crippling disease. The world is now closer to achieving global polio eradication. If it can be done, it will be the second infectious disease, after smallpox, to be eliminated.
It has not been easy. It's taken decades and millions of health workers traveling by foot, boat, bus and bicycle to reach children in remote geographic areas. Health workers have even braved conflict to prevent children from enduring life-long disability and paralysis.
In 1996, South African President Nelson Mandela, with the support of service organization 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 the polio vaccine. At the time, polio was paralyzing an estimated 75,000 children, annually, on the African continent. Since then, 9 billion oral polio vaccines have prevented nearly 2 million cases of wild poliovirus on the continent, according to the WHO.
Carol Pandak heads Rotary International's Polio Plus Program. "We have made tremendous progress working with community leaders," she told VOA, "sometimes with military officials, to help deliver vaccine to reduce the number of children that were inaccessible due to conflict, down to very, very small numbers."
Other leaders, like former Nigerian Health Minister Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate, went from village to village in his native Nigeria to persuade tribal leaders to let children get vaccinated.
Pate is now with the World Bank where he serves as the global director of a health program that focuses on women and children.
In an interview with VOA, Pate said, "It took a lot of effort from many leaders, from national, government leaders, traditional leaders, religious leaders and families, as well as volunteers and health workers, who came together to make this tremendous feat possible."
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative provided funding and logistical support. This initiative is led by national governments with five partners – the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the vaccine alliance.
The effort also involved a huge disease surveillance network to check sewage for the virus and test cases of paralysis. But, Pandak says the work is not done. She says it's important that communities continue to immunize their children against polio.
Polio still exists along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and until the virus is knocked out of that region, children everywhere are at risk of contracting the disease.
There is also another danger: the oral polio vaccine most children get contains a weakened polio virus. In areas where the water is polluted and hygiene is poor, the virus can continue to circulate when it's excreted. It's rare, but sometimes the vaccine-derived virus infects children and causes paralysis. Rapid response teams then rush to the area to re-immunize the children and stop the vaccine-derived virus from spreading.
A different oral vaccine, one that’s more stable, will be introduced next year to prevent that from happening.
The polio eradication effort demonstrates two things: that people around the world can come together to accomplish great things, and, Pate says, it shows that vaccines work.
Now that polio prevention systems are in place throughout Africa, Dr. Pate hopes they can be used to hold on to this enormous gain and to continue routine immunizations, so every child is protected from vaccine preventable diseases.