Wild poliovirus (WPV), the pathogen responsible for polio, has officially been “eradicated” from the African continent, according to the World Health Organization. Despite many obstacles, years of vaccination efforts have finally paid off.

It’s official: all countries on the African continent have eradicated wild poliovirus (WPV). The African Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) made the announcement on Tuesday at an event hosted by the WHO. The latest case was recorded in 2016 in Borno State, northeast Nigeria.

“Today, members of the Africa Region Certification Commission report that transmission of wild poliovirus has been interrupted in Africa,” said its president, Dr. Rose Leke. “Thanks to the efforts of governments, health workers and communities, more than 1.8 million children have been saved” from this disease, WHO said in a statement.

Wild poliovirus, one of the three strains that cause polio, is a highly infectious virus that attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord. It sometimes leads to partial or complete paralysis, especially in the youngest. Some, whose muscles that support breathing remain frozen, can also die.

The pathogen is extremely contagious, capable of spreading when food, water or objects contaminated with the feces of an infected person are brought into the mouth. Less commonly, the virus can be spread by an infected person sneezing or coughing.

Although there is no specific treatment for polio, a full course of polio vaccinations is over 99% effective in preventing infection.

To “extinguish” the wild poliovirus in Nigeria, national governments and other local leaders part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative coordinated a campaign to immunize children in Borno State, in the northeast of the country.

Speakers had to deal with various threats brought by the Boko Haram insurgency, which is present in the region. To protect healthcare workers, the military and a government-approved militia acted as escorts, Dr Tunji Funsho, a Nigerian polio coordinator for Rotary International, told Reuters.

The balance sheet remains heavy, despite everything. “Twenty medical workers or volunteers have been killed in the region for this cause over the past few years,” said Dr Musa Idowu Audu, WHO coordinator for Borno State.

In addition, some local communities also appeared to be opposed to the vaccination effort due to concerns about its side effects. For years, the jihadists have indeed condemned this approach, arguing that it is a plot to sterilize Muslims.

“Several polio survivors included in the response teams ultimately won the trust of local communities,” Misbahu Lawan Didi, president of the Nigerian Polio Survivors Association, told BBC News.

Today, an estimated 30,000 children still remain “inaccessible” in the region. This number remains “too low” to ensure epidemic transmission, according to scientific experts. Now, only two countries still have WPV infections: Afghanistan and Pakistan, which recorded 29 and 58 cases respectively in 2020.

Joseph Mandell

Mandell is currently working towards a medical degree from the University of Central Florida. His main passions include kayaking, playing soccer and tasting good food. He covers mostly science, health and environmental stories for the Scientific Origin.