The wild poliovirus, better known as polio, was officially declared Tuesday as “eradicated” from the African continent by the World Health Organization, after four consecutive years without a reported case and massive efforts to immunize children.
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“Today, members of the Certification Commission for the Africa Region (ARCC) – the certification body of the WHO – declare that the transmission of wild poliovirus has been interrupted” in Africa, said its president, Rose Leke, during an event organized by videoconference.
“This is a historic moment for Africa,” said WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti. “From now on, children born on this continent will not have to worry about being infected with polio.”
The announcement also brought together by videoconference the Director-General of WHO, the Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, or the billionaires and philanthropists Aliko Dangote (Nigerian) and Bill Gates (American).
“It’s a great victory, a deliverance”, confides to AFP Tunji Funsho, from the Polio Nigeria committee of the Rotary International association. “It has been over 30 years since we launched this challenge. To say that I am happy is an understatement! ”Rejoices this Nigerian doctor.
It normally takes three years without a declared case to obtain certification from the WHO, but the UN organization has preferred to wait four years, this time, “to be 100% sure that there is no longer any danger” , explains the doctor.
Caused by wild poliovirus, poliomyelitis is an acute infectious disease that mainly affects children, attacks the spinal cord and can cause irreversible paralysis.
It was endemic all over the world, until a vaccine was discovered in the 1950s.
Convince the populations
In 1988, the WHO counted 350,000 cases worldwide and more than 70,000 cases in Africa alone in 1996.
But thanks to a rare collective awareness and to significant financial efforts (19 billion dollars over 30 years), only two countries in the world today have contaminations by the wild poliovirus: Afghanistan (29 cases in 2020 ) and Pakistan (58 cases).
Epicenter of the disease in the world at the beginning of the 2000s, Nigeria, an African giant of 200 million inhabitants, was still very recently alongside them.
In the Muslim north, under pressure from Salafist circles, polio vaccination campaigns stopped between 2003 and 2004, rumored to be the tool of a vast international plot to sterilize Muslims.
It took a lot of work with traditional and religious leaders to convince people to have their children vaccinated.
However, in 2009, the emergence of the conflict against Boko Haram dampened hopes of having finally eradicated the disease: in 2016, four new cases of poliomyelitis were recorded in Borno State (northeast), home of the disease. jihadist insurgency.
“At the time, around 400,000 children were beyond the reach of any medical campaign because of the violence,” recalls Dr.r Funsho.
The security situation remains extremely volatile in north-eastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (Iswap) group control large areas, particularly around Lake Chad.
“But local authorities, humanitarian agencies and all partners have taken the bull by the horns to find solutions to reach these children,” said Musa Idowu Audu, WHO coordinator for Borno State.
Today, it is estimated that only 30,000 children are still “inaccessible”: a figure “too low” to ensure epidemic transmission, according to scientific experts.
Despite his “immense pride and joy”, Dr Audu recalls that around 20 medical or volunteer workers have been killed in recent years in northeast Nigeria.
It is the second virus to be eradicated from the continent since the disappearance of smallpox 40 years ago.
Other good news from the continent: the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Tuesday announced the official end of a deadly measles epidemic that has claimed, in 25 months, more than 7,000 children under the age of five.
And Togo announced Monday to be the first African country to have “definitively eradicated from its territory human African trypanosomiasis (HAT)”, better known as “sleeping sickness”.
Doctors, however, remain concerned about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on surveillance activities for other epidemics. In several countries on the continent, vaccination campaigns, including polio, have been halted due to movement restrictions, but the WHO has called for their resumption “as soon as possible”.
Continent least affected by COVID-19 after Oceania, Africa has officially recorded 1,196,539 cases of the new coronavirus, including 27,990 deaths.