Nigeria is on the verge of being declared polio-free, which would mean the virus has been eradicated across Africa.
Wednesday marks three years since Nigeria’s last documented case of polio, which was also the last case recorded in Africa. This means the continent can be certified free of the virus by the World Health Organisation-backed Global Polio Eradication Initiative once the remaining samples have been analysed.
The milestone is an important achievement for Africa’s most populous country. “It is a big deal for Nigeria, for Africa and for the world,” said Tunji Funsho of Rotary International, the charity which has been at the forefront of the country’s fight against the disease.
He added: “No child has been paralysed by the wild polio virus in Nigeria. We have been able to reach every child with a vaccine before the virus reaches them.”
Faisal Shuaib, head of the Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency, a government health agency, said: “We are here acknowledging this milestone while ensuring there is no complacency about the quantum of work that needs to be done to ensure certification, and to ensure population immunity continues to be maintained.”
Nigeria’s last polio case was recorded on August 2016, in war-torn Borno, the state at the heart of the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency. As recently as 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all global polio cases, according to the WHO, with 223 victims.
According to the WHO, the incidence of polio worldwide has been reduced by more than 99 per cent since 1988, when more than 350,000 children were paralysed annually in 125 countries. If Nigeria is ultimately declared polio free, the virus will remain in only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Beyond insecurity, the task of eradicating polio meant overcoming immense logistical challenges. Nigeria has little cold storage for vaccines, poor infrastructure and many remote communities, along with deep suspicion in some corners of the country about the safety of vaccines.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to vaccinate his own grandchildren against the virus helped ease his many supporters’ minds, Dr Shuaib said. Combining the vaccination with other health services, including check-ups and malaria treatment, also made it more acceptable to those among the country’s 87m extremely poor who receive little from the government.
Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of volunteers have repeatedly vaccinated roughly 50m Nigerian children under the age of five. The effort was driven by the Nigerian government, via the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a joint effort between the WHO, Rotary International, the US government, Unicef and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The programme also received funding from the foundation of Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man.
It will take months of rigorous analysis to run all of the samples but Wednesday’s milestone paves the way for Africa to be officially deemed polio-free by as early as mid-2020.
Jay Wenger, director of polio eradication at the Gates Foundation, said much work remained. “Governments across the region must remain vigilant against all forms of polio. It is important that political and financial commitments to eradicating all forms of the virus are redoubled to ensure children across the continent are protected from polio for good.”
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