The world is on the brink of eradicating polio, but health organizations have just been hit with a disappointing setback. Despite going two years with no reported cases, Nigeria has announced that two children have been paralyzed by the disease, when up until now it was thought that polio only persisted in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It means that just as the country, and entire continent, had only one year to go without a confirmed case of the disease to be declared polio-free, eradication attempts will have to be redoubled and the clock reset.
“We are deeply saddened by the news that two Nigerian children have been paralyzed by polio,” says the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti. “The Government has made significant strides to stop this paralyzing disease in recent years. The overriding priority now is to rapidly immunize all children around the affected area and ensure that no other children succumb to this terrible disease.”
Genetic analysis of the disease detected in Borno, north-western Nigeria, shows that it is most closely related to a wild poliovirus strain that was last detected in the region in 2011. While it has long been suspected that low-level transmission of the virus has continued over the last few years, it has been incredibly difficult to completely eradicate it. This is largely down to difficulties in reaching children in the remote Borno area, as well as political instability in the region that prevents vaccination teams from traveling, as well as increases the movement of civilians and thus increasing the threat of spread.
So far this year, only 21 cases of wild polio have been reported globally, compared with the 34 cases reported at the same point a year earlier. The world is slowly edging closer to completely eradicating the disease, which if achieved will only be the second human disease ever eliminated, after smallpox in 1979. While up until 2012, Nigeria accounted for up to half of all polio cases worldwide, recently it has made significant strides, meaning that the disease only persisted in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban has made it difficult to carry out vaccination programs.
Right now, health organizations will need to focus on making sure that as many children within Borno have been vaccinated as possible to try and prevent the disease from spreading further, though it is inevitable that more people are already infected.
“This is an important reminder that the world cannot afford to be complacent as we are on the brink of polio eradication – we will only be done when the entire world has been certified polio-free,” says Dr. Michel Zaffran, Director of polio eradication at the WHO.