"This is an incredible and emotional day," WHO Africa director Matshidiso Moeti said Tuesday as health authorities declared the African continent free of the wild poliovirus after decades of effort. The declaration leaves Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan as the only countries thought to still have the wild poliovirus, with vaccination efforts against the highly infectious, water-borne disease complicated by insecurity and attacks on health workers. The announcement by the African Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication comes after no cases were reported for four years. Polio once paralyzed some 75,000 children a year across Africa. The World Health Organization says this is just the second time a virus has been eradicated in Africa, after the elimination of smallpox four decades ago, reports the AP.
But sometimes patchy surveillance across the vast continent of 1.3 billion people raises the possibility that scattered cases of the wild poliovirus still remain, undetected. The final push to combat the virus focused largely on northern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram Islamic extremist group has carried out a deadly insurgency for more than a decade. Health workers at times carried out vaccinations on the margins of the insecurity, putting their lives at risk. This new declaration doesn’t mean Africa is polio-free. Cases remain of the so-called vaccine-derived polio virus, which the WHO has a great explanation of here. That mutated virus can spark outbreaks in under-vaccinated communities, and 16 African countries are currently experiencing one.
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