Africa has been officially declared free of polio, in a milestone development announced today.
The continent was given the status by independent body the Africa Regional Certification Commission, after having no wild polio cases for four years.
The disease, which usually affects children under the age of five, is now only found in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Polio, which can lead to irreversible paralysis and even death when breathing muscles are affected, harmed around 75,000 children in Africa a year up until 1996, when Nelson Mandela launched the ‘Kick Polio Out of Africa’ programme.
Through this, millions of health workers were mobilised, going village-to-village to hand-deliver vaccines. Though there is no cure for polio, a vaccination protects children for life.
Today the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement on the landmark moment, saying: ‘Thanks to the relentless efforts by governments, donors, frontline health workers and communities, up to 1.8 million children have been saved from the crippling life-long paralysis.’
The virus was common across the world until a vaccine was found in 1952 by Jonas Salk. This was then replaced by an oral version of the treatment, introduced by Albert Sabin.
The mass immunisation of children eliminated the virus in North America and Western Europe decades ago, but cases of wild polio continued to exist in some of the most remote and impoverished corners of Africa and Asia.
Nigeria was the last African country to report cases of polio back in 2016. Less than a decade ago, the country accounted for more than half of the cases globally and had particular difficulties achieving immunisation in the north, where Islamic extremist group Boko Haram has carried out a deadly insurgency for more than a decade.
Health workers at times carried out vaccinations on the margins of the action, putting their lives at risk.
Eradicating polio requires more than 90% of children being immunised – more than 95% of Africa’s population have now had the vaccine.
The WHO says it is only the second time a virus has been eradicated in Africa, after the eradication of smallpox four decades ago. However, this positive development doesn’t mean the continent is polio-free.
There are still some cases of the vaccine-derived poliovirus in Africa, which is a rare mutated form of the weakened but live virus contained in the oral polio vaccine.
That mutated virus can spark crippling polio outbreaks, and 16 African countries are currently experiencing one: Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo and Zambia.
This year, 177 cases of the vaccine-derived polio virus were identified in the continent.
Health authorities have warned that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted vaccination work in many countries across Africa, as the WHO and its partners reluctantly recommended a temporary halt to mass polio immunisation campaigns, leaving more children vulnerable to infection.
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