Health

Polio Has Almost Been Completely Eradicated In African Countries

CREDIT: AP Photo/Sayyid Azim

A World Health Organization official gives a dose of polio vaccine to Somali children

In a global health milestone that’s going largely overlooked, the African continent has gone four months without a single reported case of the wild poliovirus. It’s the first time in history that the region has gone that long without a polio diagnosis, putting Africa on track to eradicate polio altogether.

According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative — a public-private partnership of global health experts working to combat the deadly disease — the world is closer than ever to a polio-free Africa. Compared to 2013, cases are down nearly 90 percent:

polio

CREDIT: Global Polio Eradication Initiative

This past year included several examples of significant progress toward ending the crippling disease, which mainly strikes children under the age of five and causes paralysis that can ultimately be fatal.

Nigeria, one of the countries where polio has remained endemic, only recorded six cases of the virus this year. That’s a big improvement over 2013, when 53 cases were recorded. “We can see light at the end of the tunnel,” Tunji Funsho, the chairman of the Rotary PolioPlus Committee in Nigeria, told the Globe and Mail this week. “All the hard work that we’ve been doing is seeming to pay off now.”

And this spring, after Indian health officials reported no polio cases for the third consecutive year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared India to be polio-free. That marked a big victory for the country, which accounted for half of all global cases of polio as recently as 2009. Eliminating the disease among India’s 1.2 billion residents involved a coordinated public health campaign to administer polio vaccines and educate people on proper sanitation techniques.

Plus, other health crises illustrated the indirect benefits of investing in polio eradication programs. For instance, in Nigeria, health officials were able to effectively halt the spread of Ebola thanks to an existing health care infrastructure that was set up in 2012 to combat polio. Because of those previous efforts, Nigeria already had trained doctors, sophisticated hospitals, and tools like masks and rubber gloves. Health officials have pointed to the country as proof that Ebola can be stopped in countries with adequate health care resources.

“A world where children can grow up free from the threat of polio is within our grasp in the coming year,” the Global Polio Eradication Initiative predicts, pointing out that nearly 99 percent of countries have already introduced or expressed an intent to introduce the polio vaccine to their populations.

But the organization also warns that progress is fragile. Polio has continued to spread in countries like Afghanistan and Syria, where efforts to vaccinate children against the disease have been undermined by warfare and terror. Even though Syria’s vaccination rate was about 95 percent in 2010 — one of the highest in the region — it’s plummeted to just 45 percent after more than two years of war, a period that has decimated the country’s health care infrastructure.