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Even as Africa grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the continent has eradicated another disease: the wild polio virus.
Africa was declared free of the wild poliovirus on Tuesday, with no new cases reported in the last four years, the Africa Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication said in a statement. Polio, a disease that mainly affects children under five years of age, sometimes causing irreversible paralysis or death, is now only endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“This is a momentous milestone for Africa,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa. “Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio.”
The milestone paves the way for polio to become the second-disease ever to be wiped out globally after small pox. At a point about $1 billion a year was being spent by partners of a worldwide eradication initiative, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the WHO and Rotary International to stamp out the disease. The certification comes after a long process of surveillance, immunization and field verification visits to all 47 member states in the region.
The decades-long push has faced several setbacks over the years. In 2016, Nigeria — the last polio-endemic country in Africa at the time — recorded a case of the wild poliovirus in the insurgency hit northeastern part of the country, setting the clocks back.
In Pakistan, which last year reported the biggest surge since 2014, anti-polio campaigns have been targeted by right-wing groups and militants who’ve attacked health workers.
More recently, the WHO suspended vaccination campaigns to protect health workers from the coronavirus and free them to support the fight against the new disease, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in April.
Some African countries have reported cases of vaccine-derived polio, but only countries with what is called “wild polio virus” are considered endemic. While rare, the vaccine-derived strand can occur when the weakened live virus in the oral polio vaccine passes among under-immunized populations.
“We must stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence,” Moeti said. “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.”