Progress in Nigeria brings humanity closer to ending polio

Op-Ed written by Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa

This week we mark the birthday of Dr. Jonas Salk, the scientist who shot to fame in the 1950s for developing one of the two lifesaving vaccines that have brought us within touching distance of wiping polio off the face of the earth. There is a lot to celebrate this year. On Monday, I met with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja and handed over a letter from WHO Director Margaret Chan that confirms that Nigeria has officially been removed from the list of countries where polio is endemic. This is a historic milestone for Nigeria, Africa and the world.

In 1988, 350,000 children were paralysed by polio in every region of the globe. Thus far in 2015, there have been 51 wild polio cases worldwide. On the African continent, Nigeria was the last frontier for polio eradication efforts. As recently as 2012, the country was home to more than half the world’s cases. After a long struggle, Nigeria has now gone more than a year without reporting a single child paralysed by wild poliovirus. Nigeria’s success in turning its eradication program around offers important lessons which are now being taken up in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries where polio is still endemic.

The first lesson is that government leadership at all levels is critical. Leaders in Nigeria and across Africa have prioritised and funded the fight against polio, and they must continue to do so to ensure the disease stays out for good.

Constant innovations to polio vaccination campaigns have also been essential in helping us work through major challenges and getting the right vaccines to the poorest and most marginalised communities. In Nigeria, investment in Emergency Operations Centres and improved disease surveillance systems to track and quickly respond to polio cases and coordinate national immunisation efforts catalysed progress. Business as usual doesn’t stop a resilient virus like polio – countries must seek out new approaches to reach every last child with vaccines. 

Frontline health workers are the ultimate key to ending polio. They are the engines of eradication, building community understanding of polio and battling through harsh terrain, floods, and even civil wars to reach children with the lifesaving vaccines. All countries must invest in health workers to ensure they have the training, skills and incentives to continue their heroic work.

Underpinning success is the support of the international community. The ongoing partnership of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and its committed donors has brought us to the brink of ending polio, and continued support will carry us over the finish line.

The value of investments in polio eradication is evident in more than just this year’s record low case numbers. Polio infrastructure is strengthening health systems and helping to halt other diseases in their tracks. In Nigeria, for example, it helped prevent what could have been a disastrous Ebola outbreak in Lagos last year. Across Africa and Asia, polio programs are supporting measles immunisation and surveillance.

Studies have shown that achieving a polio-free world will bring savings of as much as US$50 billion over the next 20 years. Putting polio in the history books will free up resources to tackle new and ambitious health goals for the 21st century, such as eliminating malaria and delivering on the promise of universal health coverage.

The momentous progress we’ve seen in Nigeria and across the African continent gives us hope that we can eradicate polio globally. Now is not the time for complacency; in fact, we must redouble our efforts and see this challenging journey through to the end.

History has shown that if we let up, polio can quickly come roaring back. While Africa has interrupted polio transmission, two more years must pass without a case of wild poliovirus before it is considered officially eradicated from the continent. We therefore need to continue working with partners to provide the necessary support for this noble cause until Africa is certified polio-free. As long as polio exists anywhere, all children are at risk. This is why all countries must continue to strengthen vaccination and surveillance to keep polio out.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next month in Malta will be an opportunity for Prime Ministers and Presidents to recommit politically and financially to polio eradication. I urge those in attendance to show the world that they are in this fight to the finish.

If this final push is fully funded and backed politically, I have no doubt that soon we will be celebrating the end of polio. This will undoubtedly be one of the greatest achievements in human history – proof of what we can accomplish when we come together for a common cause.