African region declared free of wild poliovirus

by Ryan Hyland

Rotary and its GPEI partners celebrate a monumental achievement, say global eradication of wild polio is possible with the continued dedication and persistence of Rotarians

The World Health Organization (WHO) on 25 August announced that transmission of the wild poliovirus has officially been stopped in all 47 countries of its African region. This is a historic and vital step toward global eradication of polio, which is Rotary’s top priority.

After decades of hard won gains in the region, Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) — WHO, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Gavi, the vaccine alliance — are proclaiming the milestone an achievement in public health. They offer it as proof that strong commitment, coordination, and perseverance can rid the world of polio.

The certification that the African region is free of wild poliovirus comes after the independent Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) conducted thorough field verifications that confirmed no new cases and analyzed documentation of polio surveillance, immunization, and laboratory capacity by Cameroon, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and South Sudan. The commission had already accepted the documentation of the other 43 countries in the region.

The last cases of polio caused by the wild virus in the African region were recorded in Nigeria’s northern state of Borno in August 2016, after two years with no cases. Conflict, along with challenges in reaching mobile populations, had hampered efforts to immunize children there.

Now that the African region is free of wild poliovirus, five of WHO’s six regions, representing more than 90 percent of the world’s population, are now free of the disease. Polio caused by the wild virus is still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region.

The African region’s wild polio-free certification was celebrated during a livestream event. Speakers included Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Bill Gates, Rotary International President Holger Knaack, Nigeria PolioPlus chair Dr. Tunji Funsho, and representatives of other GPEI partners. The celebration was followed by a press conference.

In the program, Knaack spoke about people needing good news during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “The challenges ahead are formidable,” Knaack said. “That’s why we must recognize this great achievement and commend all the people who played important roles in reaching this milestone. It took tremendous effort over many years.”

An achievement decades in the making

Not detecting any wild poliovirus in Africa is in stark contrast to the situation in 1996, when 75,000 children there were paralyzed by the disease. That year, at a meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Cameroon, African heads of state committed to eradicating the disease from the continent.

To bolster the effort, also in 1996, Rotary, its GPEI partners, and South African President Nelson Mandela launched the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign. Using soccer matches and celebrity endorsements, the campaign raised awareness of polio and helped more than 30 African countries to hold their first National Immunization Days. Mandela’s call to action helped mobilize leaders across the continent to increase their efforts to reach every child with polio vaccine.