Despite historic milestone, country still faces hurdles before being declared polio-free.
Today marks one year since Nigeria last reported a polio case caused by wild poliovirus, putting the country on the brink of eradicating the paralyzing disease.
The last case was reported on 24 July 2014 in the northern state of Kano. If no cases are reported in the coming weeks, the World Health Organization is expected to remove Nigeria from the list of countries where polio is endemic, leaving just two: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Nigeria is the last polio-endemic country in Africa. The continent is poised to reach its own first full year without any illness from the virus on 11 August.
“Every Rotarian in the world should be proud of this achievement,” says Rotary International President K.R. Ravindran. “We made history. We have set Africa on course for a polio-free future. But we have not yet reached our goal of a polio-free world. Raising funds and awareness and advocating with your government are more crucial than ever.”
Progress in Nigeria has come from many measures, including strong domestic and international financing, the commitment of thousands of health workers, and new strategies that reached children who had not been immunized earlier because of a lack of security in the northern states.
“Rotary’s commitment has been the number one reason for the recent success in Nigeria,” says Dr. Tunji Funsho, chair of Rotary’s Nigeria PolioPlus Committee. “We have infected political leaders with this commitment. The government has demonstrated this with political support and financial and human resources. And that went down the line from the federal level, to the state, to the local governments.”
Nigeria has increased its domestic funding for polio eradication almost every year since 2012 and has allocated $80 million for the effort this year.
Funsho also applauds religious leaders who championed the vaccination efforts to families in their communities.
Despite the historic gains in Nigeria, health experts are cautious about declaring victory. Funsho says the Global Polio Eradication Initative partners must strengthen routine immunization especially in hard-to-reach areas, in addition to boosting sensitive surveillance to prevent resurgence of the disease. If no new cases are reported in the next two years, Nigeria, along with the entire Africa region, will be certified polio-free.
“The virus can be introduced from anywhere where it is still endemic, particularly now in Afghanistan and Pakistan, into areas that haven’t had polio in years,” Funsho says. “It is important we keep the immunity level in Nigeria to at least 90 percent.”
For instance, Syria experienced a sudden outbreak of the disease when 35 cases were reported in December 2013. None had been reported there since 1999. “Immunizations become imperative for history not to repeat itself in Nigeria,” says Funsho.
In June, Rotary announced $19 million in grants for continued polio eradication activities in Africa, including almost $10 million for Nigeria. Since 1985, when Rotary launched PolioPlus, the program that supports the organization’s polio eradication efforts, its worldwide monetary contributions to the cause have exceeded $1.4 billion.
“We’ve come a long way and have never been so close to eradicating polio in Nigeria and around the world, but it’s not a time to fully celebrate,” says Funsho. “We have some grueling years ahead of us before WHO can certify Nigeria and Africa polio-free.”
By Ryan Hyland