Africa declared free of wild polio

A collective global effort and financial backing have helped to all but wipe out the disease on the continent

Africa was declared free of wild polio on Tuesday by the independent Africa Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication.

Certification of the milestone, announced during a World Health Organisation videoconference, means all 47 countries in the WHO's Africa region have eradicated the viral disease that can cause irreversible paralysis. The last case in Africa was recorded four years ago in north-east Nigeria.

“Thanks to the relentless efforts by governments, donors, frontline health workers and communities, up to 1.8 million children have been saved from the crippling lifelong paralysis,” the WHO said.

The official announcement was made on Tuesday afternoon with WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and key figures including philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

“Happiness is an understatement. We’ve been on this marathon for over 30 years,” said Tunji Funsho, a Nigerian doctor and local anti-polio co-ordinator for Rotary International.

Africa's freedom from wild poliovirus is a tremendous milestone in worldwide efforts to end polio

He said it marked a crucial step towards the eradication of the illness globally.

“It’s a real achievement. I feel joy and relief at the same time,” Dr Funsho said.

Poliomyelitis, or “wild polio”, is an acutely infectious and contagious disease which attacks the spinal cord and causes irreversible paralysis in children.

It was endemic around the world until a vaccine was found in the 1950s, though this remained out of reach for many poorer countries in Asia and Africa.

As late as 1988, the WHO counted 350,000 cases globally, and in 1996 said there were more than 70,000 cases in Africa alone.

Thanks to a rare instance of collective global effort and financial backing – about $19 billion over 30 years – only Afghanistan and Pakistan have recorded cases this year: 87 in total.

The UAE has long played a critical role in the fight against polio, including helping to tackle the 2013/2014 outbreak in the Horn of Africa and raising billions of dollars for the cause. Thanks to support from the Emirates, 25 million children were immunised in Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

“Africa’s freedom from wild poliovirus is a tremendous milestone in worldwide efforts to end polio," said Abdullah Khalifa Al Ghafli, director of the UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme.

"This success is proof of what is possible when governments, civic society and local communities come together with commitment, co-ordination and ingenuity.

“We must remain vigilant in our efforts against the wild virus as it continues to circulate in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Covid-19 had paused vaccinations campaigns until recently."

Nigeria, a country of 200 million people, was still among the trouble spots in the early 2000s.

In its northern Muslim-majority areas, authorities were forced to stop vaccination campaigns in 2003 and 2004 when extremists claimed it was a vast conspiracy to sterilise young Muslims.

It took a huge effort in tandem with traditional chiefs and religious leaders to convince populations that the vaccine was safe.