Abuja — Africa is on the brink of being declared officially polio free after Nigeria, the continent's last remaining infected country, marked three years without any new cases.
Polio, an infectious disease that affects children under five years old, is caused by a virus and leads to paralysis within hours. The WHO says that more than 125 countries had polio cases in 1988 but the disease is now endemic in only two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
With Nigeria's last case of wild polio virus having been recorded on 21 August 2016, the country could be declared polio-free in December for having no polio cases in more than three years, the official added.
"There is no doubt that three years without a case of wild polio virus is a historic milestone for the Polio Eradication Programme in Nigeria and the global community," Faisal Shuaib, executive director, National Primary Health Care Development Agency, said at a press conference in Abuja last week (21 August).
"Completely eradicating all types of polio virus will be one of the greatest achievements in human history. However, we must not take for granted our current success because it is one which we must delicately manage with cautious euphoria and resilience," Shuaib added.
Despite the achievement, he explained, Nigeria has not been declared polio-free by the WHO because of the certification process that includes a country enjoying three consecutive years without a child being paralysed by wild polio virus, evidence of quality surveillance that shows no child is paralysed again and excellent routine immunisation coverage for eligible children and high quality campaigns with oral polio vaccine.
"These processes are expected to be completed between March and June, 2020".
Shuaib cautioned Nigeria against losing sight of the huge amount of work that is left before being certified polio-free by relevant global organisations including the WHO.
The press conference identified the factors that have led to Nigeria being on the verge of eradicating polio.
After the discovery of a case in 2016, Nigeria's President Mohammadu Buhari ordered an immediate release of 9.8 billion naira (about US$26.7 million) to the country's Polio Eradication Programme.
Peter Clement, the WHO officer in charge of Nigeria, said that the feat was due to renewed commitment by Nigeria, partners and the thousands of health workers over the past three decades to bring the wild polio virus count to zero.
"Since the last outbreak of wild polio in 2016 in the northeast, Nigeria has strengthened supplementary immunisation activities and routine immunisation, implemented innovative strategies to vaccinate hard-to-reach children. These efforts are all highly commendable," Clement explained.
Abdulraham Funsho, chairman, National PolioPlus Committee of the Rotary International, Nigeria, attributed the feat to hard work and commitment on the part of key institutions but cautions against complacency. "Nigeria needs to ensure we reach all children with the polio vaccine before the polio virus reaches them," he told SciDev.Net. "The funding levels must continue and even increase before we can rejoice."
Mallam Isa Yakubu, a community health attendant in Damaturu, Yobe state, one of the areas in Northern Nigeria under constant attack from the Boko Haram insurgency, said the success recorded by Nigeria was because of the determination of local health workers to ensure that no child is left out of the routine immunisation programme.
"At the risk of our lives, we ensure that we take the vaccines to all parts including the internally displaced people camps so that we can reach as many children as possible," Yakubu told SciDev.Net.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.