YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - Scientists warn a campaign to eradicate polio in central Africa is falling short because of upheaval in the Lake Chad Basin area, where the Boko Haram militant group remains active. On the positive side, on country – Gabon - has been declared polio-free.
Professor Rose Leke, who heads the Africa Regional Certification Commission for polio eradication, says Central Africa has seen no cases of polio in the past 15 months. But, she adds, scientists cannot be sure the polio virus has been eradicated in the region.
Leke says medical teams find it difficult getting access to conflict zones in Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.
"DRC has circulating polio viruses, so many of them. We are worried about the country and so we have specific recommendations also for DRC and for all the others. We are still very concerned about the Lake Chad basin area, the Borno [state in Nigeria] area where we do not know what is happening there. I think that is a concern for the entire world," she said.
Leke says polio cases have decreased by more than 99 percent in the past 30 years, from an estimated 350,000 per year to just 37 reported cases in 2016.
She says as a result of the global effort to eradicate the disease, more than 16 million people have been saved from paralysis.
According to the United Nations, once a case of polio is recorded, it takes three years of no other case to declare the zone polio-free. Gabon recently reached that goal.
Gabon's neighbor Cameroon has attained the status of “non-polio exporting country," but is still considered a high-risk nation like other African states with an influx of refugees from conflict zones that health care workers mostly avoid.
But Alim Hayatou, Cameroon's secretary of state in the ministry of health, says the country is also on track to be polio-free.
He says they have prepared an ambitious plan to make sure Cameroon eliminates polio by 2019.
Central African states have organized numerous inoculation campaigns, but more than 15 percent of children in the region remain unvaccinated due to cultural resistance, conflicts and illiteracy.