The Last Country in Africa to End Polio Just Reached a Historic Milestone

Nigeria has gone a year without a single case, setting the continent on the path to being polio-free in three years.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Jul 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Africa’s last polio-endemic country is about to be rid of that label for good.

Today marks one year of Nigeria being polio-free, and the country will be officially removed from the World Health Organization’s polio epidemic list in August. The disease, which primarily affects children under the age of five and can lead to permanent paralysis, had been eradicated in every African country except Nigeria.

Friday’s news signifies historic progress in the fight to end polio. If no new cases are announced in any African country for the next three years, WHO will officially declare the continent polio-free.

Rotary International—which has been leading polio immunization efforts alongside WHO, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 1985—called the achievement a “significant global health milestone” in a statement released today. But the organization also cautioned that the next two years will be a critical time for ensuring that Nigeria stays on track.

“It is too soon to celebrate,” Tunji Funsho, Rotary International’s National PolioPlus Committee chair for Nigeria, said in the statement. “The world needs to keep polio eradication a high priority to ensure the disease does not return within our borders.”

Hamid Jafari, the director of WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative, echoed the thought at a Rotary International convention last month. “As long as polio exists anywhere, it will continue to be a threat everywhere,” he said.

To put Friday’s achievement into perspective, 125 countries around the world were on the polio epidemic list in 1988. Today, only two—Afghanistan and Pakistan—continue to battle the disease (WHO declared India and the Southeast Asian region polio-free in 2014). Last year, 90 percent of the world’s reported polio cases were in Pakistan, the highest it’s been in more than a decade.

Securing access for vaccinators has been the primary obstacle. In Nigeria, for example, religious leaders skeptical of foreign aid have thwarted a number of vaccination efforts and even attacked immunization workers.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which funds TakePart World) made wiping out polio a top priority in 2013, but Bill Gates revealed in an interview last year that violence within countries was delaying progress.

“Nigeria and Pakistan are going to be tough. The Pakistan violence is evil,” Gates told AFP, frustrated that inoculation drives were being undermined. “The truth is the vaccine is to help kids. And spreading rumors and attacking the workers on this—those people don’t have justice and truth on their side.”

But progress is happening. Jafari shared at the convention that vaccinators have “gained access to areas that have been out of reach for years,” and the country has already seen a 70 percent reduction in polio cases in the first half of 2015 compared with the same time last year, according to Rotary International.

“This is a reminder that we cannot let politics and conflict stand in our way,” Jafari said. “At the end of the chain stands a mother or father that just wants to protect their child. But the coming months are the real test. We are entering the high season for polio transmission.”