One year after Africa was declared free of Polio Myelitis, leaders from the continent under the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region, have expressed commitment to ending all remaining forms of polio.
They made this declaration during the 71st WHO Regional Committee meeting where a scorecard to track progress towards the eradication of the virus was presented.
Although the continent was certified free of wild poliovirus about a year ago following four years without a case, outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) has continued to spread.
Health experts have said the cVDPVs occur in communities where not enough children have received the polio vaccine. WHO said cases increased last year in part because of disruptions to polio vaccination campaigns caused by COVID-19.
Since 2018, 23 countries in Africa have experienced outbreaks and more than half of the global 1,071 cVDPV cases were recorded in Africa.
Speaking during the 3-day event which started on August 24, the chairman of the African Union and President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, said he is determined to work with other countries to protect the gains of the monumental efforts against polio and finish the job against all forms of the disease in Africa.
“Only then, we will be able to say we delivered on our promise of a safer, healthier future for all our children,” he said.
Also speaking from Nigeria, Chairman, Rotary’s National PolioPlus Committee in the country, Tunji Funsho, said there is a need for increased political and financial commitment by governments and partners to walk the last mile towards ending all forms of polio.
“We must reach more children faster and comprehensively to not only curb outbreaks swiftly, but to also scale up vaccination coverage and give children lasting protection against this preventable disease,” he added.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, noted that their success in ending wild poliovirus in the region shows what is possible when we work together with urgency.
She said: “COVID-19 has threatened this triumph as governments worked hard to limit the spread of COVID-19, pausing some campaigns. However, we cannot waver, and with renewed vigour we can overcome the final hurdles that jeopardize our success. We have the know-how, but it must be backed by committed resources to reach all under-vaccinated communities and ensure that all children thrive in a world free of polio.”
At the regional committee level, countries discussed how they would begin implementing the new Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) 2022-2026 Strategy that was launched in June to urgently stop the spread of cVDPVs.
According to the participants, tools and tactics outlined in the strategy to stop outbreaks also include improving the speed and quality of outbreak response through rapid deployment of surge staff from the WHO regional office for Africa to support countries as soon as outbreaks are detected.
Further integrating polio campaigns with the delivery of essential health services and routine immunisation to reach children who have never been vaccinated, help build trust with communities and improve uptake of the polio vaccine.
They said till date, six countries in Africa have rolled out the vaccine with close to 40 million children vaccinated and no concerns noted for safety.
Also speaking, Togo’s Minister of Health and Public Hygiene and Universal Access to Health Care and the Chairperson of the meeting, Moustafa Mijiyawa, a professor, said: “The poliovirus disregards and defies borders. Its presence anywhere in our region is a threat to all countries. Togo is committed to working with our regional partners and acting with the urgency required to implement high quality polio campaigns and protect children across Africa. With collective action, we will defeat all forms of polio.”
The participants said the scorecard presented at the regional committee will track indicators for implementation of timely, high-quality polio outbreak response, and the readiness to introduce nOPV2 as the new vaccine becomes eligible for broader use.
They added that it will strengthen routine immunisation to close immunity gaps, and transition polio assets into national health systems in a strategic, phased approach.
Ministers also said they were committed to regularly reviewing progress together on each of these indicators to ensure collective success and urgently finish the job on polio and securing a polio-free future for every child across the region.
Vaccination so far
The global health organisation has revealed that almost 100 million African children have been vaccinated against polio since July 2020, after activities were paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.