WHO Announces Africa Likely Polio Free After Massive Effort in Nigeria

Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that Africa is on track to being declared polio free after three years without a documented case of the disease.

In a press release on August 21, the WHO announced three years have passed in Nigeria without a case of wild polio detected, saying the achievement is a “major milestone.” The last recorded case of the poliovirus was in 2016. Nigeria is the remaining country in Africa currently battling polio infections, but if there are no more cases found in the next few months, the continent is on track to become polio free by 2020.

“We are confident that soon we will be trumpeting the certification that countries have, once and for all, kicked polio out of Africa,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said in a statement.

Polio is an infectious disease that invades a person’s brain and spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC). Those who become infected with the virus usually do not exhibit any symptoms, but one out of four people may experience flu-like symptoms like sore throat, fever, tiredness, nausea, headaches, and stomach pain. The symptoms usually last from two to five days and resolve on their own, the CDC stated.

The CDC noted that some people who are infected with the virus can develop more serious symptoms like paresthesia, meningitis, or paralysis.

“Paralysis is the most severe symptom associated with polio because it can lead to permanent disability and death,” the CDC wrote. “Between 2 and 10 out of 100 people who have paralysis from poliovirus infection die because the virus affects the muscles that help them breathe.”

Dr. Moeti praised the work of health workers and “the continent’s resilience and strong commitment to stopping the virus in overcoming the tough challenges.”

“The path to eradicating polio in Africa has been a monumental effort of multinational coordination on an unprecedented scale, providing vaccinations to hundreds of millions of children and conducting immunization campaigns in some of the most remote locations in the world, with vigilance and exhaustive surveillance to timely detect outbreaks, including among people on the move,” Moeti said in the statement.

“It has involved men and women volunteering in the thousands, sometimes putting themselves in harm’s way, some even sacrificing their life for this work.”

Health workers in Nigeria will continue to monitor the disease and act to counter its spread. On August 22, the organization announced that it was aiding the state of Cross River in administering polio vaccines to Cameroonian refugees.

The organization stated that many of the refugees come from Akwaya, Otu, Eyumojock, Nsan, Dadi, and Bodam villages. The WHO pointed to the need for these efforts because “some migrants — particularly refugees fleeing war, persecution, or natural disaster — come from regions with weak or disrupted health systems [and] therefore face a unique set of challenges to health care, hence the need for immunization.”

“For you people to travel all the way from Calabar during this rainy period to immunize our children, may you be blessed and rewarded” Ketches Peter, Head of the 13 autonomous Communities in the Okende Refugees Settlement, Ogoja Local Government Area of Cross River, said in a statement. “We are so happy with your support.”

Since the most recent case of polio in 2016, the WHO stated that the government “has organized more than a dozen supplementary immunization campaigns with oral polio vaccine, worked on strengthening routine immunization, improved its polio surveillance networks, and deployed innovative strategies (market vaccination, cross-border points, and outreach to nomad populations)” in an effort to make sure children are given the polio vaccine.

The organization acknowledged that health workers face a number of challenges trying to administer the vaccine, including conflict and insecurity in certain areas, variations in campaign quality, and, in some instances, parents who refuse to have their child vaccinated. Despite this, Dr. Moeti said the organization “must remain vigilant” to make sure the country is polio free.

“This August’s milestone on wild polio is a positive sign of progress across the continent, but our work is not yet done,” said Dr Moeti in a statement. “We must remain vigilant in our immunization and surveillance efforts: Every country must continue ensuring that it is closely looking for the virus and reaching every child with vaccines.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.