How Ending Polio in Africa Has Had Positive Spinoffs for Public Health

The polio eradication programme in Africa directly combated a severe debilitating disease. Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP via Getty Images

Polio is a highly infectious disease. It’s caused by a virus that enters the body through the mouth. The virus then multiplies in the intestine and attacks the central nervous system – causing paralysis.

Polio was one of the most dreaded diseases in the world in the 20th century. Four decades ago, an estimated 350,000 people were paralysed each year by the poliovirus in more than 125 countries. This led the World Health Assembly in 1988 to adopt a resolution for the worldwide eradication of polio, drawing inspiration from the eradication of smallpox.

The global programme to eradicate polio is spearheaded by a number of actors. These include national governments, the World Health Organisation (WHO), multiple development agencies, and healthcare workers.

The strategy involves widespread vaccination as part of routine healthcare services as well as mass vaccination campaigns. Sensitive surveillance to detect and rapidly respond to polio cases is also key.

This initiative has been extremely successful. The number of people paralysed by polio decreased by 99.9% – from 350,000 in 1988 to 175 in 2019. During the same period, the number of polio endemic countries fell from more than 125 to only two: Afghanistan and Pakistan. A country is endemic when there’s widespread circulation of polio. Read more…

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