On the eve of what would have been Africa’s two-year anniversary without polio, Nigeria reported new cases of wild poliovirus. This is a setback in the global effort to eradicate polio once and for all. But as Nigeria is again classified as polio endemic, I am confident that we will come back from this.
The progress that we have achieved together is nothing short of astonishing. There have been just 26 cases of wild polio this year, representing a precipitous drop in new cases compared to this point just a year ago. Though the most remote corners of Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to report new cases, we have every reason to believe that we can soon eradicate polio. Even in Nigeria, the virus is beaten back to a comparatively small area of the country, representing now the last reservoir in all of Africa. This is tremendous progress, when one considers that just five years ago, hundreds of cases occurred all over the north of the country.
Presently, immunisation campaigns are underway throughout the Lake Chad Basin, designed to respond to this outbreak. Thousands of health workers are aiming to reach millions of children with lifesaving vaccinations and other health services. Additionally, the international polio eradication effort and the governments of Nigeria, as well as neighbouring Chad, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Niger are scaling up surveillance efforts to complement the immunisation campaigns. The governments across the region have declared the outbreak a regional public health emergency, freeing up critically-needed additional tools and resources to fight the outbreak.
That said, this underscores the risk that low-level transmission of the virus continues to pose to children everywhere, in particular to the most vulnerable children. This outbreak is occurring in the midst of a larger humanitarian emergency in Nigeria’s troubled Borno State on the border of the Lake Chad Basin, magnifying the challenge that lies ahead. But we do have the tools and strategies to stop this outbreak in its tracks. Even in some of the least stable and most threatening environments, such as the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, we have successfully stopped such outbreaks. I have the utmost faith that we can do this in Nigeria and the Lake Chad sub-region, too.
I am proud to be counted among the millions of health workers, volunteers and policymakers who have dedicated their energies to wiping polio off the face of the earth. While saddened by this new outbreak, I am not discouraged. If anything, this global network’s ability to rally and consolidate support so quickly in the wake of this outbreak has given me even more reason to believe that global eradication remains a question of “when” and not “if.”
This disease thrives in climates of neglect and indifference, but it will be our refusal to accept polio’s existence that will drive it out wherever it may survive.