Tuesday, August 25, is a milestone day for Africa. The Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) has declared the continent free of wild polio, with more than 95 percent of the population vaccinated against the disease.
Polio, short for poliomyelitis, is caused by the poliovirus and spreads through person-to-person transmission via contact with fecal matter and, less commonly, droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person. It largely affects children under the age of 5. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "1 in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralysed, 5 percent to 10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized."
A vaccine for the condition was first developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk. In the 1960s, Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine, which is now the world standard.
“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,” Professor Rose Gana Fomban Leke, ARCC Chairperson, said in a statement.
According to the WHO, global wild poliovirus cases have decreased by over 99 percent since 1988, when the World Health Assembly decided to eradicate the disease worldwide. Two of the three strains are now completely eradicated. Wild polio type 1 now remains only in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“This is a momentous milestone for Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio,” added Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “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.”
Africa has not had any new cases of wild poliovirus since 2016. In 2018, there were only 33 cases of wild poliovirus reported, 21 of which were in Afghanistan and 12 in Pakistan. The next challenge for the continent is to eradicate the vaccine-derived poliovirus called cVDPV2, which can spread in communities that are extremely under-immunized.
The oral polio vaccine is a weakened version of the virus and given to children. This replicates in the intestine, where it helps the child build immunity. However, once excreted, it can possibly contaminate the local water. If the community is not widely vaccinated, others could become infected with cVDPV2. This is why widespread immunization is key.
Key players in the eradication success has been Rotary's Global Polio Eradication Initiative and partners, including the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi, and the Vaccine Alliance.