Just 25 years ago, polio was rampant in Africa. The virus left many young children paralyzed and some dead after weakening their muscles.
There is no cure for polio but decades of treating African children with a vaccine have made these tragic stories a thing of the past. Even in Nigeria, the last country on the continent to report a polio case and once the site of more than half the cases in Africa, polio has been effectively eradicated.
Africa has since been declared free of the polio virus by the Africa Regional Certification Commission.
“Today we come together to rejoice over a historic public health success, the certification of wild poliovirus eradication in the African region,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said during a livestreamed event. “The end of wild polio in Africa is a great day. Your success is the success of the world. None of us could have done this alone.”
This is a momentous milestone in the history of human health, as well an achievement for the people and governments of Africa. Eliminating polio from an entire continent is not an easy task. In Nigeria alone, healthcare workers were sent to “remote and dangerous places under threat from militant violence” where some were killed, the BBC reports.
The Africa Regional Certification Commission’s clean bill of heath means that more than 95% of Africa’s population has now been treated with a polio vaccine. An estimated 9 billion units of the vaccine have been administered since efforts to eliminate th disease began, CNN reports. Now only the vaccine-derived polio virus is found in Africa.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the 177 polio cases reported in 2020 came from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic and Angola.
The polio vaccine was created by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1952. Nine years later, Albert Sabin synthesized an oral vaccine that could be distributed around the world and administered to children much easier than bringing them into a doctors office for shots.
But while the rest of the world saw polio declining from the ranks of serous diseases, Africa was left largely untreated. By 1996, more than 75,000 children in every country in Africa were suffering from the disease. The same year, Nelson Mandela initiated the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” campaign, during which healthcare workers were sent into villages to treat children with the vaccine.
Since then, the wild poliovirus has been almost completely eradicated, now found only in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Achievements aside, polio is still a pernicious disease and can spread o or reappear in under-immunized communities.
In Angola, where polio was declared eradicated in 2001, new cases of thee virus began to spread just four years later. According to the WHO, loosened advocacy for the polio vaccine led to the virus’ return. Nearly 50 children have been stricken with polio since the 2005 outbreak. The Angolan government has responded by putting greater effort into vaccinating children, and has since protected at least 4.5 million more from contracting the disease.
“The polio vaccination campaign that the Angolan government is leading is critical in disrupting the polio outbreak. All of us must work together to sensitize our families and communities to the need for all children to be vaccinated. We need to continue engaging to develop a robust routine disease surveillance and vaccination system to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to any polio cases,” said Dr. Hernando Agudelo, WHO Representative in Angola.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.