Africa within reach of being certified a polio-free continent

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Sub-Saharan Africa is finally on the brink of being declared polio-free.

In July this year, the region marked one year without a new polio case. If no new cases are reported within three years, Africa will be certified polio-free.

As a result of the use of two vaccines developed more than 50 years ago the annual number of polio cases has globally dropped by more than 99% from about half a million in the 1980s to only 34 so far in 2015. But eliminating the last 1% of cases of polio is still proving to be a challenge.

In 1996 African heads of state resolved to stamp polio out of Africa. Then South African President Nelson Mandela launched the three-year ‘Kick Polio out of Africa’ campaign. But by 2000, wild poliovirus was still circulating in Egypt, Niger, and Nigeria. The situation worsened when the polio vaccine was stopped in northern Nigeria due to religious reasons. As a result, polio spread from the area to eight other African countries in 2003.

Poliovirus continued in Africa until 2014. But the number of affected countries has been decreasing. In 2004 there were 14 countries that had polio outbreaks. These included Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Sudan. In 2011, this dropped to 12, and last year there were only five African countries.

In all these outbreaks, the common factor was the country’s failure to immunise. The reasons for this failure varied from each outbreak, but in each case there was a group of non-vaccinated people that enabled the poliovirus to spread far and wide.

The World Health Organization estimates that once polio is eradicated and vaccination halted, global savings from vaccination, treatment costs, and rehabilitation will be around the US$2 billion a year mark.

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