Nigeria was the last African country to conquer the dreaded polio. The fight against the virus was particularly tough there.
A milestone in international disease control: Africa is now officially completely free from polio, the dreaded polio. The World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a corresponding report at the 70th session of its Africa Committee on Tuesday.
It is now celebrating in Nigeria. Ironically, in Africa’s giant state with around 200 million inhabitants, the virus persisted after it had been eradicated everywhere else on the continent. Nigeria’s health authorities and private organizations are now posting pictures of champagne glasses and applauding hands on Twitter. Health Minister Ehanire Osagie warned his colleagues at the WHO meeting: “African countries must work together more. You need your own solutions, even when it comes to vaccinations.”
Poliomyelitis (polio) is a viral disease that is spread when faeces come into contact with the mouth and can lead to incurable paralysis of the nervous system. Until the development of oral vaccines in the 1950s, the disease was endemic worldwide. Vaccination campaigns in rich countries began in the 1960s; In 1988 they were expanded worldwide by the World Health Organization (WHO) together with the UN Children’s Fund and The Rotary Foundation. A similar globally coordinated program is otherwise only available against the Guinea worm.
The last polio cases in Nigeria were four years ago. At the time, two cases were registered in the state of Borno, which was considered a major setback – no outbreak had been recorded in the previous two years. After three years of no infections, there was a first sigh of relief last year on August 21: Nigeria is polio-free, the WHO announced; if it stays that way, after a year the epidemic will be declared defeated on the entire continent. That has now happened.
According to the WHO, global polio cases have decreased by over 99 percent since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 cases to 33 in 2018. The WHO declared the Americas polio-free in 1994, the Western Pacific in 2000, Europe in 2002 and Southeast Asia in 2014. Polio-free means that no more cases of infection have been registered for three years in a row. Then the chain of transmission is deemed to be interrupted, and the following year the disease is officially declared eradicated.
According to the WHO, two of the three known strains of the wild poliovirus have been completely eradicated since 2019. Now that Africa is polio-free, the virus only circulates in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where radical Islamists have been preventing vaccination campaigns for years. As a result, the number of cases is increasing again: After 33 worldwide in 2018, there were already 70 by June 16 by 2020. For months there has been no vaccination in Pakistan and Afghanistan due to corona.
For Tunji Funsho, member of the Nigerian Presidential Task Force on Polio and chairman of Rotary’s National Polio-Plus Committee, there are several reasons why the fight against polio in Nigeria was so tough: “Unlike other countries, it was only 15 years ago started to take the fight seriously.” There were repeated official boycotts. In 2004, for example, several Nigerian states withdrew from a vaccination program set up for ten West African states: the harmlessness had not been proven, it was said.
Fear has a history in the northern Nigerian state of Kano: there, the antibiotic Trovan caused severe damage during an outbreak of meningitis in 1996. Eleven children died, dozens of them were severely disabled. There was no support for the families. Even today, the commitment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and of Africa’s richest businessman Aliko Dangote to mass vaccinations repeatedly arouses suspicion, also fueled by radical Islamists such as the terrorist militia Boko Haram.
In February 2013, nine employees who vaccinated children near the provincial capital Kano were murdered. The attackers came on motorcycles and opened fire without warning. The catastrophic security situation in northeast Nigeria then meant that vaccination campaigns had to be completely suspended.
It is now important to show that vaccinations are safe and, above all, not an attack on the Muslim world, says medical expert Funsho. “Most Islamic countries are polio-free after all. That is proof.” The vaccination teams would also have to work with traditional rulers and imams. “You are the direct connection to the people.”