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Africa is on track to be declared polio-free within the next couple of months, the head of the World Health Organization’s polio initiative has said.
Nigeria was the last country on the continent where polio was endemic but there have been no confirmed cases of the disease since August 2016.
Experts say that a country has to be free of the disease for three years before it can be officially declared to have wiped outthe disease.
“We have succeeded probably [in wiping out the disease] in Africa, although that hasn’t been formally confirmed. We believe Nigeria no longer harbours the wild virus,” Michel Zaffran, director of polio eradication at the WHO told the Telegraph.
Wiping out the disease in Africa is a huge milestone as there were still around 20,000 cases a year of the disease at the beginning of the millennium.
The conflict-riven Borno State in the north eastern part of Nigeria was the last reservoir of the disease. The presence of militant group Boko Haram meant that health workers were unable to get out and vaccinate children against the disease - the only way to eradicate it.
But as the government gained more control over the area, vaccinators have been able to do their vital work, said Dr Zaffran.
“The government has regained control of a large part of this state and the number of children we estimate that are not readily accessible by immunisation systems has fallen from 600,000 to around 60,000,” he said.
“We’re increasingly confident that the virus is not able to survive in this part of the world but we probably need to have a few more months to verify the data,” he said.
This good news is tempered by the fact that the virus is still present in Pakistan and Afghanistan - the last two countries to report cases of the wild virus. There have been 27 cases of the disease in Pakistan this year, compared to 12 in the whole of 2018. And there have been 10 cases so far in Afghanistan.
Dr Zaffran said that the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, spearheaded by partners including WHO and Unicef, needed to raise $3.27 billion to ensure that the disease was wiped out by 2023.
“In 2017 there was a record low number of cases but we have seen in 2018 and this year that the numbers are beginning to rise again. The situation is not where we want it to be and that’s why we need more money to finish the job,” he said.
A poor security situation in both Pakistan and Afghanistan has hampered eradication efforts. Although the number of attacks on vaccinators has reduced in recent years three vaccinators were shot in April in Pakistan.
Areview of progress against the disease, commissioned by the eradication initiative last year, said “access limitations due to insecurity continue to represent the biggest threat to polio eradication and progress towards interrupting transmission has stalled".
Dr Zaffran said as the number of cases was declining it was harder to persuade people of the importance of vaccination.
“Parents are saying why do you keep coming to my house when there is no polio here and we have no water or sanitation and my children are falling sick with measles and other diseases,” he said.
Dr Zaffran said the money needed to end the job was not just about chasing down the final cases but about keeping vaccination campaigns going in developing countries.
“We need to continue not only surveillance in about 50 to 60 countries but also continue to vaccinate 500 million children against the disease. Keeping up vaccination is really important because if the virus was to get into a country like Yemen or the Central African Republic we would have outbreaks and a re-establishment of the disease,” he said.
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