In 2020, we have had little positive news in global health. But the continent of Africa has just been certified free of wild polio which is a big step towards the goal of eradicating polio globally! 

Africa has not seen any cases of wild polio virus for four years, which is a condition of formally achieving eradication, and only two countries (Afghanistan and Pakistan) are still experiencing some wild poliovirus infections.  

The campaign to end polio in Africa began in 1996, when the then-President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, joined with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), Rotary International and other governments in Africa to launch the Kick Polio Out of Africa initiative.  At that time, polio caused 75,000 children to be paralysed in Africa each year.  

Over the last 24 years, this campaign has prevented an estimated 1.8 million people from contracting polio, and has involved vaccinating 220 million children each year, showing the massive effort required to achieve the result of eradicating wild poliovirus in Africa.  

The resources and expertise used to eliminate wild polio in Africa have led to other benefits for Africa’s public health and outbreak response systems.  The polio programme provides multiple health benefits to local communities, from supporting the African region’s response to COVID-19 to increasing routine immunisation against other vaccine-preventable diseases.

This success also brings challenges:  Africa is free of wild polio, but 16 countries in the region are still experiencing cases of circulating vaccine-derived polio.  Wild polio is a naturally-occurring virus which circulates through personal contact.  Vaccine-derived polio is a rare strain of polio which occurs when some people who receive the oral polio vaccine (which contains a weakened form of the live polio virus) have the weakened virus from the vaccine mix with live virus in their digestive system, leading to a mutated virus which they may excrete.  

Communities which are vulnerable to the spread of vaccine-derived polio are those with poor sanitation conditions and low or inconsistent vaccination rates.    

Therefore, to ensure that Africa and other regions remain polio-free, we need to ensure that vaccination rates are maintained, and sanitation and access to health services improved.  As with other health services, the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted polio vaccination in many countries, which has led to increased vaccine-derived polio cases.  Polio vaccination campaigns are now resuming, but the interruption will mean some additional time and cost until polio is eradicated globally.  

When we mark World Polio Day next month, RESULTS Australia and our partner organisations will celebrate Africa’s victory in ending wild polio virus, and focus on what further assistance countries such as Australia can provide to ensure we build on the huge achievement of polio eradication campaigns over the last 30 years, and complete the task of polio eradication globally. 

by Mark Rice, RESULTS Policy and Advocacy Manager