Africa declared free of wild poliovirus

The polio virus has gone from being a disease that left tens of thousands of children permanently paralysed every year, to being on the brink of eradication.

While the world is focused on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and researching a vaccine, the battle to fight existing infectious diseases has continued. This week a major milestone was reached in the campaign to eradicate the wild polio virus with the news that Africa has been declared polio-free. 

The declaration comes after 4 years without a case of wild poliovirus across Africa. This has been achieved though a considerable scale-up in vaccination and surveillance efforts. Pakistan and Afghanistan are now the only two countries in which the disease remains endemic. Just 10 years ago, more than half of the annual cases of polio occurred in Africa. The continent has faced many obstacles in its battle against polio, including vaccine boycotts and violent targeting of frontline health workers.

The milestone comes at a precarious moment for the polio eradication campaign. Although clear of wild poliovirus, 2020 has seen clusters of vaccine-derived poliovirus cases across 14 African countries. The disruption of vaccination programmes by the COVID-19 pandemic leaves the continent at risk of a resurgence in the disease. The immediate fate of the polio eradication campaign will depend on its ability to adapt to the pandemic era.

The near eradication of polio is an example of what can be achieved through successful vaccination campaigns, and persistent global cooperation. It should give us reasons to be optimistic. Dr Ed Parker of the Vaccine Centre said of this polio eradication milestone : “if you keep vaccinating, keep engaging with communities, and keep up vigilant surveillance, it’s possible to grind the disease to a halt.” 

Speaking to the BBC last night Centre Director Professor Beate Kampmann said, "vaccines have saved more lives in the last 25 years than any other intervention apart from clean water". Vaccines offer a chance to eradicate old diseases as well as a promising tool to tackle new and emerging infections.  



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