The independent Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for polio eradication has officially declared Nigeria and the rest of Africa free of indigenous wild poliovirus yesterday.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this marks the eradication of the second virus from the face of the continent since smallpox 40 years ago.
In the early 1900s cases of smallpox were recorded in Nigeria, but upon the introduction of vaccines, the cases reduced drastically.
But anti-vaccination groups kicked against the immunisation jabs, leading to a resurgence of the virus, until the WHO championed a campaign that led to the eradication of smallpox in Nigeria in 1980.
“Today is a historic day for Africa. The African Regional Certification Commission for Polio eradication (ARCC) is pleased to announce that the Region has successfully met the certification criteria for wild polio eradication, with no cases of the wild poliovirus reported in the Region for four years,” ARCC Chairperson, Rose Leke, said.
The ARCC’s decision comes after an exhaustive, decades-long process of documentation and analysis of polio surveillance, immunisation and laboratory capacity of the region’s 47 member states, which included conducting field verification visits to each country.
In 1996, African heads of state committed to eradicate polio during the Thirty-Second Ordinary Session of the Organization of African Unity in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
At the time, polio was said to be paralysing an estimated 75,000 children, annually, on the African continent.
In the same year, Nelson Mandela with the support of 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 polio vaccine.
The last case of wild poliovirus in the region was detected in 2016 in Nigeria. Since 1996, 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,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said.
“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.
“However, we must stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence of the wild poliovirus and address the continued threat of the vaccine-derived polio”.
While the eradication of wild poliovirus from the WHO African Region is a major achievement, 16 countries in the region are currently experiencing cVDPV2 outbreaks, which can occur in under-immunized communities.
“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 polio virus,” Pascal Mkanda, coordinator of WHO Polio Eradication Programme in the African region, said.
“With the innovations and expertise that the polio programme has established, I am confident that we can sustain the gains, post-certification, and eliminate cVDPV2,” Mkanda added.
Moeti added that “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.
“This will be the true legacy of polio eradication in Africa,” she said.
The team expressed special gratitude to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, who worked to ensure polio cases have reduced by 99.9% since 1988, bringing the world closer than ever before to ending polio.