'A momentous milestone': Africa now free from wild polio virus

Experts hail public health achievement, urge vigilance over existing threat posed by polio vaccine-derived outbreaks.

Health authorities have declared Africa free of the wild polio virus after decades of efforts, a major step in the campaign to eradicate the crippling viral disease worldwide.

Tuesday’s historic announcement by the African Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication during a World Health Organization (WHO) event came four years after the continent’s last case was reported in northern Nigeria.

The commission, an independent body, confirmed that all 47 countries in the WHO’s Africa region have eradicated the disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. 

The news was hailed by health experts, who also urged continued vigilance over the still-existing threat posed by polio vaccine-derived outbreaks in more than a dozen countries.

“This is one of the greatest achievements in public health history,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus co-wrote in an opinion piece published in Al Jazeera.

“Delivering polio vaccines to every child in the African region and wiping out the wild virus is no small feat, and the human resources, skills and experience gained in the process leave behind a legacy in how to tackle diseases and reach the poorest and most marginalised communities with lifesaving services,” Tedros and Holger Knaack, president of Rotary International, wrote.

‘Take lessons learned’

Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Africa director, called for a continuation in the efforts to protect children across the continent “against all forms of polio and other childhood diseases”.

She added: “We must take the lessons learned and best practices from eradicating wild polio virus to achieve Africa’s other public health goals and improve healthcare for all Africans.”

That mutated virus can spark crippling polio outbreaks, and 16 African countries are currently experiencing one.

“Today’s celebration must be tempered by the expanding scope of outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio and the broader impact related to coronavirus,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance as reported by WHO Africa on Twitter.

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