With the year 2020 being nothing short of catastrophic especially in the public health domain, there is a major victory that needs to be recognized and celebrated, coming out of the African region.
I grew up watching public interest advertisements about polio and how it affected children under five, how it paralyzed them and how it is irreversible. And I remember getting freaked out over this strange medical concern at a very young age. When India and the rest of South-East Asia was finally declared polio-free in 2014, I was overjoyed, until I went to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle and saw how polio was still affecting several other countries in the world, especially Africa. It was heartbreaking to say the least, but also eye-opening.
Last week however, on Aug. 25, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the complete eradication of the wild polio virus in all the 47 countries in its African region. This declaration followed the independent Africa Regional Certification Commission’s (ARCC) verification and announcement. Africa still has around 177 cases from the vaccine-derived polio virus however, the transmission of the wild polio virus has finally been stopped in the region.
The journey, to get to this point of eradication began some 24 years ago when the late South African President Nelson Mandela called upon the people to “kick polio out of Africa.” It also took coming together of several organizations involved in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) like Rotary, WHO, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, along with hundreds of volunteers, to join hands and work tirelessly on the solution.
When the “kick polio out of Africa” campaign started, there were almost 75,000 children who were contracting polio in the African region and were being paralyzed by the disease, each year. That’s in stark contrast to the present day but the fight is not yet over. There are still two countries where the disease needs to be stopped — Afghanistan and Pakistan — and it is equally important to ensure the vaccination efforts continue everywhere else.
But while there is so much to be afraid of, wary of and cautious of around us, it is also important to recognize and celebrate the victories when they come along. It is important, to appreciate and applaud the efforts of everyone involved in this journey and most importantly, it is one more reason to salute the health care workers around the globe who are, despite the pandemic, still focusing on several other diseases surrounding us and fighting for the best health care for all of us.