Africa free of wild poliovirus declares WHO

women holding children outside poliovirus vaccination clinic in Africa
Source: hdptcar (via Wikimedia Commons)
The World Health Organisation declared Africa free of wild poliovirus from August 25 2020. This could save 75,000 children annually.

By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor

With COVID-19 dominating every headline it is easy to miss other scientific achievements across the world, but the eradication of wild poliovirus from Africa is one that certainly should not be overlooked. With the potential to stop 75,000 children being paralysed annually, its significance is clear.

Polio, officially known as poliomyelitis, is a condition that affects over 200,000 people each year, with those most at risk being children under five. Polio is a virus which spreads through contaminated water or food or between infected people when in close proximity. It then invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis within hours of infection; 5% of these cases include paralysis of the breathing muscles, including the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which leads to death by suffocation.

The battle against Polio in Africa has been going on for the last 60 years, with the first vaccine being introduced in 1961 by Albert Sabin. This vaccine was promoted by Mandela in the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” programme which saw millions of health workers delivering vaccines across Africa. It is now predicted that since this time billions of vaccines have been administered, and an estimated 1.8 million cases have been prevented.

It has been a rollercoaster journey with many challenges particularly in Nigeria, which boycotted the vaccine due to rumours that it made women infertile. The rumour was later disproved by Negerian scientists but public attitude remained. It was only through the work of polio survivors that the trust of communities was turned around. Polio survivor Mishabu Lawan Didi was part of the outreach work:

“Many rejected the polio vaccine, but they see how much we struggle to reach them, sometimes crawling large distances, to speak to them. We ask them: ‘Don’t you think it is important for you to protect your child not to be like us?'”

By gaining the trust of locals Nigeria was the last country to report it had eradicated the virus, meaning it has been four years since the most recent wild polio case. This means the World Health Organisation (WHO) have declared Africa free of the wild poliovirus strain.

When looking at this announcement, it is important to consider the other strains of poliovirus, meaning the disease is not gone forever. There are three different strains of polio, two wild strains and the vaccine-delivered poliovirus. On August 25 2020 Africa was declared free of the two wild strains meaning only the vaccine-derived strain remains.

This strain is a rare form of the virus which mutates from the vaccine, meaning it is resistant to vaccination. However, with an immunisation rate of 95% across Africa’s population, this strain will only be able to spread in under-vaccinated areas.

Owing to this the World Health Organisation reinforced the importance of vaccination in preventing a return of the poliovirus. This was confirmed by the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, in the statement:

“we must stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence of the wild poliovirus and address the continued threat of the vaccine-derived polio.”

Polio may not have been eradicated globally yet but the removal of all wild strains from Africa marks a key turning point in our fight against the disease. As described by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention it means “the end of polio is closer today bcause of the African-led commitment to fighting polio and the success of its efforts” and that is definitely something worth celebrating.

Science and Technology Holly Giles

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