In what health officials said was a major victory in the fight to rid the world of polio, the paralysing disease has been declared to be no longer endemic in Nigeria. The country officially left the list of three polio endemic countries at the weekend. Only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are now left on the list.
But Nigeria still needs to wait for another two years to be fully certified polio free by the World Health Organization (WHO). The disease can be prevented by simple vaccination.
This is the first time that Nigeria has interrupted transmission of wild poliovirus, bringing the country and the African region closer than ever to being certified polio free.
In its reaction, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the public-private partnership leading the effort to eradicate polio, referred to the new development as ‘historic achievement’ in global health.
“The outstanding commitment and efforts that got Nigeria off the endemic list must continue, to keep Africa polio-free. We must now support the efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan so they soon join the polio-free world,” said Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO.
The WHO said that as recently as 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide. Since then, a concerted effort by government, civil society, religious leaders and tens of thousands of health workers have resulted in Nigeria successfully stopping polio. More than 200,000 volunteers across the country repeatedly immunized more than 45 million children under the age of five years, to ensure that no child would suffer from this paralysing disease.
Efforts from leading organisations like Rotary International have been widely recognised. Innovative approaches, such as increased community involvement and the establishment of Emergency Operations Centres at the national and state level, have also been pivotal to Nigeria’s success.
“We Nigerians are proud today,” said Dr Ado Muhammad, executive director National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Nigeria.
“With local innovation and national persistence, we have beaten polio. We know our vigilance and efforts must continue in order to keep Nigeria polio-free.”
Only Afghanistan and Pakistan remain on the list of countries where the disease, which can cause life-long paralysis, is endemic. Officials said new efforts would now be focussed on those two countries. India was declared polio free in 2014.
The United Nations (UN) health agency said in a statement late on Friday that no new cases of the disease have been reported in the past 12 months. The last case of wild polio virus was recorded in Nigeria’s impoverished north on 24 July 2014 – allowing officials to declare it free of endemic polio.
WHO says the country and Africa as a whole are now closer than ever to being certified polio-free.
The agency said polio remains endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan and warned that as long as the disease exists anywhere “it’s a threat to children everywhere”.