Africa: Continent Free of Wild Poliovirus, But Polio Threat Remains

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Health authorities in August 2020 declared the African continent free of the wild poliovirus after decades of effort, though cases of vaccine-derived polio are still sparking outbreaks of the paralyzing disease in over a dozen countries.

The declaration leaves Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan as the only countries thought to still have the wild poliovirus, with vaccination efforts against the highly infectious, water-borne disease complicated by insecurity and attacks on health workers.

The African Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication made the declaration after no cases were reported for four years. Polio once paralyzed 75,000 children a year across Africa.

Health authorities see the call as a rare glint of good news in Africa amid the coronavirus pandemic, an Ebola outbreak in western Democratic Republic of the Congo and the persistent deadly challenges of malaria, HIV and tuberculosis.

“This is an incredible and emotional day,” World Health Organization [WHO] Africa director Matshidiso Moeti said, but she urged vigilance as the coronavirus threatens vaccination and surveillance efforts.

This is the second time a virus has been eradicated in Africa, after smallpox four decades ago, WHO said. Patchy surveillance across the continent of 1.3 billion people raises the chance some cases of the wild poliovirus remain, undetected.

The final push to combat the wild poliovirus focused largely on northern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram Islamic extremist group has carried out a deadly insurgency for more than a decade. Health workers often carried out vaccinations on the margins of insecurity, putting their lives at risk. Africa’s last reported case of the wild poliovirus was in Nigeria in 2016. 

The declaration doesn’t mean Africa is polio-free. Cases remain of the so-called vaccine-derived virus, a rare mutated form of the weakened but live virus contained in the oral polio vaccine. The mutated virus can spark polio outbreaks, and 16 African countries were experiencing one as of August 2020: Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo and Zambia.  The Associated Press

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