* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
To write the final chapter in this unfinished success story, we must stay committed to ramping up immunity levels, disease surveillance and outbreak readiness
Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization Regional Director for Africa.
As the world strives to eradicate polio, Africa may soon reach a major breakthrough in efforts to rid the planet of one of the most devastating diseases of all time. The continent’s resilience and strong commitment to stopping the virus overcame tough challenges, and Africa now stands on the threshold of becoming the next region to be declared free of wild polio.
This week, Africa marks an important moment on the path to zero cases: three years since the last case of wild poliovirus was detected. This three-year landmark sets in motion a comprehensive evaluation process by the Africa Regional Certification Commission to determine if the entire World Health Organization (WHO) African region can be declared wild polio-free.
Should national level data prove the wild virus is gone, Africa will join four of the WHO’s six regions – the Americas, the Western Pacific, Europe and South-East Asia – in holding this distinction. It will leave only the WHO Eastern Mediterranean region still working to stop the virus.
The path to eradicating polio in Africa has been a monumental effort of multinational coordination on an unprecedented scale, providing vaccinations to hundreds of millions of children and conducting immunization campaigns in some of the most remote locations in the world, with vigilance and exhaustive surveillance to monitor outbreaks and people on the move. It has involved men and women volunteering in the thousands, sometimes putting themselves in harm’s way.
Yet, while this August’s marker is a positive sign of progress across the continent, our work is not yet done. We must remain vigilant in our eradication and surveillance efforts: every country must continue ensuring that it is closely monitoring for any signs of the virus and reaching every child with vaccines.
Unfortunately, there is one concerning sign of gaps in Africa – several countries have reported outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus that only appear in areas where children are not fully immunized. The same methods that stop wild polio will stop this rare form – strong surveillance and vigilant distribution of the polio vaccine, and countries across the region have launched coordinated responses.
Stopping the disease has not been easy. Some health workers have even lost their lives. But despite the risk, I am inspired by the continued dedication I have seen. Governments, partners, civil society and local communities are using tried-and-true methods while staying innovative to overcome the obstacles.
And the progress we have experienced over the past three years is significant. In Nigeria, for example, polio workers painstakingly mapped the many islands of Lake Chad and travelled hours by canoe to reach hundreds of settlements for the first time. They also rolled out a new app-based electronic surveillance system called e-Surve to track the virus to its very last hiding places.
These successes would not have been possible without the incredible perseverance of countries and partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative who have mobilized the financial and technical resources to get the job done.
To write the final chapter in this unfinished success story, we must stay committed to ramping up immunity levels, disease surveillance and outbreak readiness. While countries across the region are grappling with other health challenges and emergencies, such as Ebola and measles outbreaks, we must not lose sight of how unified efforts to strengthen health systems and maintain confidence in vaccination will provide the best shot at protecting all children from preventable diseases.
Africa has united against polio before – we can do it again. Just over 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela first issued the call to achieve a polio-free Africa. During that year, in 1996, wild polio had paralysed more than 75,000 children across the continent.
Mandela’s challenge was heard. Africans came together, with political leaders, traditional and religious leaders, front-line health workers, partners, donors and, most importantly, parents – all united for the common goal of finding and vaccinating every child to protect them from polio.
On the cusp of achieving a planet free of polio, let us listen to Nelson Mandela again. Let us unite once more and kick polio out of Africa for good!