By DEBBIE SMUTS
Saturday 24 October is World Polio Day, and this year, there is something significant to celebrate: the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on 25 August that transmission of the wild poliovirus has officially been stopped in all 47 countries of its African region. This is a historic and vital step toward global eradication of polio, which is Rotary’s International’s top priority.
President of the Rotary Club of Grahamstown Sunset, Javier Martin, said, “Rotary Clubs all over the world celebrate World Polio Day in October, but this year, we are celebrating polio being kicked out of Africa. It is a monumental achievement, made possible by the continued dedication and persistence of Rotarians and global partners who have fought for decades to combat polio. We’ve kicked polio out of Africa, and now we must reach our ultimate goal – a world without polio.”
The last cases of polio caused by the wild virus in the African region were recorded in Nigeria’s northern state of Borno in August 2016, after two years with no cases. Conflict, along with challenges in reaching mobile populations, had hampered efforts to immunise children there. Now that the African region is free of wild poliovirus, five of WHO’s six regions, representing more than 90 percent of the world’s population, are now free of the disease. Polio caused by the wild virus is still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region.
Not detecting any wild poliovirus in Africa is in stark contrast to the situation in 1996, when 75,000 children there were paralysed by the disease. That year, at a meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Cameroon, African heads of state committed to eradicating the disease from the continent.
To bolster the effort, also in 1996, Rotary, its Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners, and South African President Nelson Mandela launched the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign. Using soccer matches and celebrity endorsements, the campaign raised awareness of polio and helped more than 30 African countries to hold their first National Immunisation Days. Mandela’s call to action helped mobilise leaders across the continent to increase their efforts to reach every child with polio vaccine.
Since 1996, countless Rotarians from across Africa and around the world have raised funds, immunised children, and promoted vaccinations, enabling the GPEI to respond to and stop polio outbreaks. More than 9 billion doses of oral polio vaccine have been provided throughout the region, preventing an estimated 1.8 million cases of paralysis. Each year, about 2 million volunteers help vaccinate 220 million children against polio multiple times in the African region.
Rotary members have contributed nearly $890 million toward polio eradication efforts in the African region. The funds have allowed Rotary to issue PolioPlus grants to fund polio surveillance, transportation, awareness campaigns, and National Immunisation Days. Dr Tunji Funsho, chair of Rotary’s Nigeria PolioPlus committee, noted Rotarians’ tremendous contributions to polio eradication efforts in Africa: “From raising funds and immunising children, to providing ‘polio pluses’ such as soap and health kits, Rotary members have shown resilience and steadfast dedication to our top priority of ending polio.”
Rotary members have helped build extensive polio infrastructure that has been used in 2020 to respond to Covid-19 and, in 2014, the Ebola crisis, as well as to protect communities from yellow fever and bird flu.
The GPEI’s challenge now is to eradicate wild poliovirus in the two countries where the disease has never been stopped: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, routine immunisation in Africa must also be strengthened to keep the wild poliovirus from returning and to protect children against circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus, which is rare but continues to infect people in parts of the African region.
To eradicate polio, multiple high-quality immunisation campaigns must continue to be given priority. Even during the CovidD-19 pandemic, it is necessary to keep children vaccinated against polio while also protecting health workers from CovidD-19 and making sure they do not contribute to its transmission.
Global health officials and experts say that sustained fundraising and advocacy are still crucial, not only to protect gains in Africa, but to reach the ultimate goal of a world without polio. Rotary members still have a critical role to play in keeping the African region free of wild poliovirus and eliminating the virus in the two countries where polio remains endemic.
Martin said, “The fight is not over yet, and as Rotarians, we will continue to support the drive for a polio-free world. We’re so close now, we need to finish the job. Our Rotary Club contributes every year to the PolioPlus campaign.”
Visit endpolio.org to learn more about Rotary and the fight to eradicate polio.
- Debbie Smuts is a member of the Rotary Club of Grahamstown
- *Headline changed: While it is true that the wild poliovirus has been eradicated in Africa, there have been cases of vaccine caused polio, and so we felt the original headline (“Polio free Africa”) was not completely accurate.