Bright spots: Nigeria marks step towards global polio eradication

Nigeria celebrates one year free from new cases of polio

Nigeria had cause to celebrate on Friday: one year free from new cases of polio. In the 12 months to July this year, no more children were forced to endure the pain and possible paralysis of the highly infectious disease.

Reaching this milestone means another key win is in sight – the complete eradication of the virus. If the West African country can keep polio at bay for another two years, it will succeed in being certified polio free.

This step forward matters far beyond Nigeria’s borders. Along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, the country was deemed one of just three in the world where polio, which mainly affects the under-5, was rife. Nigeria’s recent success could remove it from the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) ‘endemic’ list and offers hope for the global bid to wipe polio from the map.

The number of cases worldwide continues to fall. Thirty-three cases of wild poliovirus have been reported globally so far in 2015 – 28 in Pakistan and five in Afghanistan – compared to 128 cases in 2014 and 416 in 2013. In 1988, there were 350,000 cases, according to WHO.

Nigeria’s gains have been patiently won in the face of resistance from some northern areas of the country, where in 2003 the vaccine was banned for fear it was a cover to maliciously spread other illnesses. Government and health organisations worked with local communities to respond quickly to outbreaks – including through emergency operations centres – raise awareness and acceptance of vaccination campaigns and reach every child.

“Our eyes are on the prize, but this is the most critical time in the programme,” said Nigerian minister of state for health, Fidelis Nwankwo, in PM News Nigeria. “There is no room for complacency until we achieve eradication in 2017.”

With Nigeria on course to be polio-free, pressure turns now on Afghanistan and particularly Pakistan to follow suit. But the fight that has successfully reduced the worldwide incidence of polio by 99 per cent since 1988 is truly a global one. Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, have donated generously to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), along with gifts from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the OPEC Fund. More than $11bn has been invested in GPEI since 1988, according to the organisation.

Still, GCC support is needed to get worldwide cases down to zero and prevent the disease’s rebound. The Middle East is proof the virus can easily stage a comeback; an outbreak in Syria swept across the border to Iraq in early 2014 where two cases broke a decade-long polio-free record.

As long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk.