Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari hailed on Tuesday Africa’s attainment of the wild poliovirus free status, calling it “a historic feat.”
At the virtual session of the 70th World Health Organization (WHO) regional committee for Africa, Buhari expressed optimism that African countries can defeat the COVID-19 pandemic in the same manner as it eradicated poliomyelitis.
“I recall that shortly after assuming office in May 2015, I made a pledge to Nigerians that I would not bequeath a polio-endemic country to my successor,” the Nigerian president said. “This certification is, therefore, personal fulfillment of that pledge to not only Nigerians but to all Africans.”
Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease usually affecting children aged below five. It can also lead to permanent paralysis or death.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Africa was declared free from wild poliovirus by the Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) four years after the last confirmed cases were recorded in Nigeria.
“Today is a historic day for Africa. The ARCC for polio eradication is pleased to announce that the region has successfully met the certification criteria for wild polio eradication, with no cases of the wild poliovirus reported in the region for four years,” said ARCC chairperson Rose Gana Fomban Leke in a statement.
The decision comes after an exhaustive, decades-long process of documentation and analysis of polio surveillance, immunization, and laboratory capacity of the region’s 47 member states, which also included field verification visits to each country, Leke said.
Buhari said that at a time when the global community is battling the COVID-19 pandemic, the achievement strengthened his conviction that “with the requisite political will, investments and strategies, as well as citizens’ commitment, we will flatten the epidemic curve.”
“I can affirm the commitment of all African leaders to this course of action,” he added.
The declaration marked the eradication of the second virus from the face of the continent after smallpox was wiped out 40 years ago.
“This is a momentous milestone for Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio,” said WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti.
“This historic achievement was only possible thanks to the leadership and commitment of governments, communities, global polio eradication partners, and philanthropists. I pay special tribute to the frontline health workers and vaccinators, some of whom lost their lives, for this noble cause,” Moeti added.
In 1996, African heads of state pledged to eradicate polio during the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Organization of African Unity in Yaounde, Cameroon. At the time, polio was paralyzing an estimated 75,000 children annually on the African continent.
In 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide, according to the WHO.
More than 200,000 volunteers across Nigeria immunized more than 45 million children aged below five to ensure no child would suffer from the paralyzing disease, it said.