Nigeria and Africa have been officially declared free of wild poliovirus by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Independent Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for Polio Eradication made the declaration last week. The ARCC’s decision came after a long process of documentation and analysis of polio surveillance, immunisation and laboratory capacity of the region’s 47 member states, which included field verification visits to each country. The last case of wild poliovirus was detected in Nigeria in 2016. The certification marks the eradication of the second virus from the continent since smallpox 40 years ago. With this achievement, Nigeria and Africa have joined other countries and continents that are free of the deadly virus.
The Chairperson of the Commission, Prof. Rose Leke, is right to have described the development as historic. It is quite commendable. We join Nigerians and other well-wishers across the region and beyond in celebrating the great feat.
Polio is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. It usually affects children under five, sometimes leading to irreversible paralysis. Death can occur when breathing muscles are affected.
Overcoming polio in Africa was not an easy task. Until 1996 when former South African President, Nelson Mandela and other African leaders, with the support of international organisations, made vigorous commitment to polio eradication with the launch of the Kick Polio Out of Africa Campaign, the disease was taking serious toll on the continent. At a time, polio was reportedly paralysing an estimated 75,000 children annually on the continent. Since the 1996 exercise, eradication efforts have prevented up to 1.8 million children from paralysis and saved approximately 180, 000 lives.
There is every reason to celebrate the polio-free status of the country and the continent. This is the first time Africa is being given this exciting certification. This is particularly good for Nigeria, where, in spite of numerous setbacks, relevant authorities and officials came together, worked hard with donor agencies and development partners to eradicate the disease. We commend Nigeria and other governments on the continent for making this achievement possible. We equally laud the Rotary International, United Nations, WHO, UNICEF, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sir Emeka Offor, the Rotary International Polio Ambassador to Nigeria, other Nigerians and global agencies that contributed immensely to the polio-eradication efforts. It is, indeed, a momentous milestone.
While commending the governments, communities, global eradication partners and others that contributed so much in eradicating the virus from Africa, it is worth stating that the battle is not yet over. This is not the time to rest on our oars. In fact, there should be no room for complacency. Sustaining the feat requires more vigilance and enhancing vaccination rates and other measures to avert a resurgence of the virus. There is also the need to strengthen routine immunisation to ensure that every child under the age of five in the country is protected from polio and other vaccine preventable diseases.
There are other killer diseases in the country and Africa that should be eradicated. About 71 million Africans are, for instance, living with hepatitis, with Nigeria accounting for 18 million people. We urge the government to boost the fight against malaria, tuberculosis and the ravaging Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
These and other diseases threatening the country should be vigorously fought with the same zeal deployed by the government to conquer polio. This calls for adequate training and retraining of health workers, especially those involved in surveillance and monitoring and control of diseases.
Government must deploy the same zeal used in eradicating polio to tackle COVID-19 pandemic and other health challenges affecting the country. Good enough, President Muhammadu Buhari has expressed optimism that African countries could defeat the COVID-19 pandemic the same way it eradicated the wild polio virus from the continent.
We urge the Federal Government to increase the health budget and make resources available for health workers to perform their jobs effectively. On no account should polio be allowed to stage a comeback in Nigeria and Africa. In addition to ensuring better health for all Nigerians, our polio-free status must be sustained.