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Africa eliminates wild polio; lessons for COVID-19, says Pan American Health Organization

Posted: Tuesday, August 25, 2020. 7:30 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: The continent of Africa is officially free of the wild strain of poliomyelitis (polio for short), having gone four years without a case.

Initial symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness of the neck and pains in the limbs. It also invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours.

One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralyzed, 5% to 10% of people die when their breathing muscles become immobilized,  the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reports.

The handling of the disease, which has no cure, and the vaccine used to protect against it, will offer significant lessons for the other raging, cure-less ongoing transmission now active: SARS-COVID-2 or COVID-19, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

“Soon, all countries of the world will be faced with a new challenge: applying the legacy of polio eradication will be key during COVID-19 vaccination campaigns when we have a vaccine,” said PAHO Director, Dr. Carissa Etienne. “Vaccines represent hope, a way to do good, and a right for all citizens of the world. We must relentlessly continue to promote vaccination.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional barriers for immunization programs regionally, leading PAHO to emphasize the importance of maintaining immunization as an essential service in the context of the pandemic. Since the pandemic started, PAHO has called for countries to continue to vaccinate and carry out epidemiological surveillance of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Five of six regions belonging to the World Health Organization (WHO) now have certification of being polio-free; the Americas were the first in 1994 after the last case was reported in 1991.

Polio can only be eliminated through a vaccine, first developed in 1952 by Dr. Jonas Salk and created for oral distribution by Dr. Albert Sabin nine years later. From 1996 when more than 75,000 children were paralyzed across the continent, a campaign led by late South African statesman, Nelson Mandela provided house to house vaccination in all 47 African countries with international support, the BBC reports.

Two strains of wild poliovirus are now eliminated; a third, rare vaccine-derived version has a handful of cases in Africa while Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only countries left to remove wild polio.

Dr. Etienne offered congratulations on behalf of PAHO, stating, “In the Americas, we share the joy of the thousands of health workers, decision-makers, and strategic partners who contributed to eradicating polio from Africa, a great achievement. Once again, scientific evidence, international collaboration, and hard work in the field defeated a disease for the benefit of all mankind.”

“Ending wild poliovirus in Africa is one of the greatest public health achievements of our time and provides powerful inspiration for all of us to finish the job of eradicating polio globally,” added WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.


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