The World Health Organization has declared Africa polio free after Nigeria, the only remaining country in Africa with endemic poliovirus, recorded its last case more than three years ago.
Rotary International and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) celebrate this historic public health achievement.
One in 200 polio infections result in lifelong paralysis
This is significant: the virus affects mostly children younger than five years of age. One in 200 polio infections will result in lifelong paralysis. Of such cases, five to 10% are fatal.
Poliomyelitus is a highly infectious viral disease. While Millennials and GenZ may not have heard of it, in the 1980s approximately 350 000 people were infected annually, mainly via the faecal-oral route or, less frequently, through contaminated water or food.
There is no cure, but polio can be prevented through a simple and effective vaccine. June Webber, the South African Rotarian who spearheaded the “Kick polio out of Africa” campaign, acknowledged the impetus given to the project by Nelson Mandela in 1996, a time when almost all countries in Africa were still suffering from polio.
Since then, thanks to the dedicated efforts of thousands of Rotary members and other Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners, local and national leaders, health workers, traditional and religious leaders, parents, and country leaders, African nations have immunised hundreds of millions of children across 47 countries and strengthened polio surveillance networks, averting an estimated 1.8 million cases of wild poliovirus on the continent.
Cooperation between nations and scientific advancement
Volunteers and frontline health workers, mostly women, travelled by every form of transportation imaginable to reach children with the polio vaccine. They worked up to 12 hours a day, often in soaring temperatures of over 40-degrees.
Quoting from the late former President of South Africa’s speech at the launch of the campaign, Webber said, “With his famous foresight, Madiba noted that ‘Cooperation between nations across the world, coupled with scientific advancement has made the global control of certain diseases possible. One of the great achievements of our generation is the eradication of smallpox,’ he says.
“Similarly, the eradication of wild polio in Africa will go down as one of the greatest achievements of this generation,” Webber continues. “But we cannot let our guard down. As President Mandela noted then: ‘Our aim is not merely to reduce the numbers afflicted – it is to eliminate the disease completely. No country can be safe from this disease until the whole world is rid of it. For it can cross borders with ease.’
“While Rotary and its global partners rallied to Madiba’s appeal and we celebrate today’s announcement, we cannot let our guard down. Polio vaccination efforts throughout the African region must continue,” Webber emphasises. “The wild virus continues to circulate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as long as it circulates anywhere, all children are at risk.”
Sue Paget, CEO of the Rotary Action Group for Family Health & AIDS Prevention, echoed Webber’s point: “It is critical that funding in the African Region continues so that we can continue immunizing children, maintain strong levels of polio surveillance, and ensure that children are protected against cVDPVs. If we maintain our vaccine programmes and surveillance, no more African children will die or be paralysed by the wild poliovirus.
“But this is a momentous announcement. We must acknowledge the tireless efforts of the frontline health workers and volunteers who worked long hours, often difficult circumstances, just as they are doing now,” Paget notes. “Against the background of COVID19, this announcement serves to illustrate what can be achieved when the system is trusted and children are vaccinated against infectious disease.
“If the same trust can be replicated, the same success will be achieved with this new challenge, and we stand ready to help. We already are. The massive polio infrastructure that Rotary members helped build is playing a critical role in responding to COVID-19, providing broader health services to communities in need and protecting children from other vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Rotary International President Holger Knaack adds, “The world has had very little good news to celebrate in global health this year, and the challenges ahead are formidable. That is why we must recognize this great achievement and commend all of the people who played important roles in eradicating wild polio in the African region. It took tremendous effort and partnership over many years. I’m particularly grateful for the Rotary members throughout Africa and around the world who have dedicated themselves to making polio a disease of the past.”
There are Rotary clubs in all 47 countries in Africa, and the region is home to almost
32 000 Rotary members in nearly 1 400 Rotary clubs. These Rotarians have played a critical role in helping the region achieve its wild polio-free status by holding events to raise funds and awareness for polio and working with world governments and national and local leaders to secure funding and support for polio eradication. Rotary members around the world have donated their time and money to supporting polio eradication, the organisation’s top priority.
Five out of six World Health Organization regions are now wild polio free.