On Tuesday, the World Health Organization is expected to announce that the African continent is free of wild polio, four years after last occurrence of cases in north-eastern Nigeria. Thanks to the concerted efforts of governments, donors, front...
africa, nigeria, polio, health
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization is expected to announce that the African continent is free of wild polio, four years after last occurrence of cases in north-eastern Nigeria.
"Thanks to the concerted efforts of governments, donors, frontline health workers and societies, the debilitating lifelong paralysis has rescued up to 1.8 million children," the WHO said in a statement.
On Tuesday afternoon, the official announcement is expected in a video conference with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and key figures including philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
"Happiness is an understatement. For over 30 years, we've been at this marathon, "said Tunji Funsho, a Nigerian doctor and Rotary International 's local anti-polio coordinator.
He said this marked a critical step towards globally eradicating the disease.
"It's a veritable accomplishment. At the same time I feel both happiness and relief, "Dr Funsho said.
Poliomyelitis, or "wild polio," is an highly infectious and contagious disease that affects the spinal cord in children and induces permanent paralysis.
This was widespread across the globe until a vaccine was discovered in the 1950s, though this remained out of reach for many poorer Asian and African countries.
As late as 1988, 350,000 cases were counted worldwide by the WHO, and more than 70,000 cases had been registered in Africa alone in 1996.
Only Afghanistan and Pakistan have reported cases this year, thanks to a remarkable example of concerted global action and financial support – around $19 billion over 30 years –: 87 in total.
In the early 2000s Nigeria, a nation with 200 million people, was also one of the trouble spots.
Authorities were forced to suspend vaccination drives in their northern Muslim-majority regions in 2003 and 2004 when Islamist extremists believed it was a massive plot to sterilize young muslims.
Together with traditional chiefs and religious leaders it took a tremendous effort to persuade people that the vaccine was safe.
"People trust their traditional local leaders who live with them more than the political leaders," said Grema Mundube, a community leader in Monguno, Nigeria's far north.
After we spoke to them and they saw us immunize our kids they eventually approved the vaccine, "he told AFP.
Yet the rise of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram in 2009 has triggered another system breakdown. Four new cases were identified in north-eastern Borno state, the center of the violence, in 2016.
"We couldn't meet two-thirds of Borno state kids at the time – 400,000 kids couldn't have access to the vaccine," Dr Funsho said.
The region 's security situation remains highly volatile, with Boko Haram militants and a local ISIS affiliate controlling large areas around Lake Chad and the border with Niger.
"International organizations, local governments, donors — all partners — have taken the bull by the horns to find new ways to meet those kids," said Dr. Musa Idowu Audu, WHO coordinator in Borno.
Vaccination teams have operated under the security of the Nigerian army and local self-defence militias in these partially accessible regions.
For areas completely run by the insurgents, the WHO and its allies were trying to track people coming in and out along market and transportation routes to distribute medical information and hire "health informants" who could warn them about any polio cases.
"We've built a confidence bond with these communities , for example by giving them free medical supplies," said Dr Audu.
It is estimated today that only 30,000 children are still "inaccessible": a number which scientists find too small to allow an epidemic to break out.
Despite Dr Audu's "strong happiness and pride," he never fails to note the twenty or more medical staff and volunteers killed in recent years for the cause in north-east Nigeria.
The goal now is to ensure that no new cases of polio are coming from Afghanistan or Pakistan and that vaccines continue to protect children across the continent from this vicious disease.
Dr Funsho said: “Before we couldn’t sleep at all. Now we will sleep with one eye open.”