Polio usually affects children under five, sometimes leading to irreversible paralysis. Death can occur when breathing muscles are affected.
Twenty-five years ago thousands of children in Africa were paralysed by the virus.
Thousands of people across Africa still live with the effects of the disease, but on Tuesday the ARCC declared the region free of endemic wild polio, four years after the last case was recorded in Nigeria.
“Today is a historic day for Africa. The ARCC is pleased to announce that the Region has successfully met the certification criteria for wild polio eradication, with no cases of the wild polio virus reported in the Region for four years,” said Prof, Rose Gana Fomban Leke, ARCC Chairperson.
The ARCC’s 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 included conducting field verification visits to each country.
The certification, announced during a World Health Organization (WHO) event, confirmed that all 47 countries in the WHO’s Africa region have eradicated the crippling viral disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours.
Children under five are the most vulnerable, but people can be fully protected with preventative vaccines. To keep the virus at bay, population immunisation coverage rates must be high and constant surveillance is crucial.
The last case in Africa was recorded in 2016 in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state, which has been ravaged by the Islamist militant Boko Haram insurgency since 2009.
Tunji Funsho, a Nigerian anti-polio coordinator for Rotary International, said one way the disease was stamped out in Borno was to use the military and a government-approved militia to escort vaccinators in unsafe areas.
Globally, wild polio case numbers have been cut drastically due to national and regional immunisation for babies and children. The disease remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however.
“Until wild polio virus is eradicated everywhere, it’s still a risk everywhere,” Michael Galway, a polio expert at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told Reuters, urging continued vigilance.
“There’s nothing that prevents the virus from making the route from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Africa,” he said.
The WHO estimates that 1.8 million children have been saved from life-long paralysis from wild polio.
Yet in spite Tuesday’s announcement, a vaccine-derived strain of the disease – which can infect people where there is only partial vaccination and results in the same symptoms as the wild form – continues to circulate in Africa.
“We must stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence of the wild polio virus and address the continued threat of the vaccine-derived polio,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Vaccine-derived polio virus cases can occur when the weakened live virus in the oral polio vaccine passes among under-immunized populations and eventually changes to a form that can cause paralysis.
The 16 countries in Africa affected by circulating vaccine-derived polio virus outbreaks include Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia.