The World Health Organization (WHO) will today certify that the African continent is free from wild polio, about four years after the last cases were reported in northeastern Nigeria.
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 globe until a vaccine was found in the1950s, however, this remained out of reach for many poorer countries in Asia and Africa.
Even after the vaccine arrived in the continent, countries like Nigeria, authorities were forced to stop vaccination campaigns in 2003 and 2004 by Islamic extremists who claimed it was a vast conspiracy to sterilize young Muslims.
It took a huge effort in tandem with traditional chiefs and religious leaders to convince populations that the vaccine was safe.
“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 life-long paralysis,” the WHO said in a statement.
The official announcement will be made at 1500 GMT in a videoconference with WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and key figures including philanthropist billionaire and Microsoft 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 coordinator for Rotary International. “It’s a real achievement, I feel joy and relief at the same time,” he added.
The only challenge left is to now ensure that no new polio cases arrive from Afghanistan or Pakistan and that vaccinations continue to ensure that children across the continent are protected from this vicious disease.
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