Africa’s victory over wild poliovirus is a giant step in global effort to eradicate polio

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on August 26, 2020 Published on August 26, 2020

The feat has has implications for India and its neighbours

Africa has achieved a milestone by eradicating polio, a historic step for the region involving national governments of 47 countries. The feat is no less mighty when it comes to the global effort aimed at achieving a polio-free world.

In this “end-game polio” campaign, India’s neighbourhood will come into sharp focus, as Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the last two countries in the world still reporting wild poliovirus transmission. India was certified polio-free in 2014.

The announcement by the Africa Regional Certification Commission on Tuesday saying that the WHO African Region was wild polio-free after four years without a case, however, did provide the healthcare community some much-needed cheer as the world grapples with the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Africa’s milestone means that “five of the six WHO regions — representing over 90 per cent of the world’s population — are now free of the wild poliovirus, moving the world closer to achieving global polio eradication”, the World Health Organisation said.

Calling it a “powerful inspiration” to finish the job of eradicating polio globally, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commended health workers, community volunteers and even traditional and religious leaders who came together “to kick wild polio out of Africa.”

Outlining the leadership required to immunise children in the region, the WHO said it involved coordination to overcome challenges such as “high levels of population movement, conflict and insecurity restricting access to health services, and the virus’s ability to spread quickly and travel across borders.”

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is a public-private partnership led by national governments with six core partners – the WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. GPEI’s polio endgame strategy (2019-2023) is to ensure that no child would be paralysed by polio.

No room for complacency

Pointing out that India should not drop its guard, Deepak Kapur, Chairman, Rotary International’s India National PolioPlus Committee, said, “ long as polio exists anywhere, it still remains a threat everywhere, so it’s imperative that wild polio is eradicated in the remaining countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Cautioning against “importation” of the virus, he stressed the importance of maintaining a high level of immunisation. “India has safeguarded its children for over 10 years since the last wild polio case was reported in January 2011 by ensuring that all children throughout the country are vaccinated twice each year to stay protected from polio,” he pointed out.

On whether the world would eradicate polio by 2023, he said that it was a goalpost to “motivate” everyone working towards it and had been change twice earlier in 2000 and 2005. “Eventually, we will get there,” he added.

Naveen Thacker, Executive Director with the International Paediatric Association, also cautioned against complacency on polio immunisation, as staff involved with polio are involved with Covid-19. Immunisation did not stop at his clinic in Kutch, he said, calling for a campaign to urge parents to get their children immunised, as people were nervous to visit doctors or hospitals. Pointing out a worldwide concern over vaccine-derived polio, he called for immunisation and surveillance efforts to be reinforced.

In fact, even as Africa said it was polio-free, the WHO note called for continued strengthening of immunization and health systems in the region to protect against wild polio and to tackle the spread of type 2 circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV2), which is present in 16 countries in the region. “Pockets of low immunity mean such strains continue to pose a threat and the risk is magnified by interruptions in vaccination due to COVID-19, which have left communities more vulnerable to cVDPV2 outbreaks,” the note said.

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Published on August 26, 2020
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