Endemics endgame: The African Region shows us what it will take to end polio for good

By Dr. Tunji Funsho

When Rotary embarked on the journey in pursuit of a polio-free world more than 35 years ago, 350,000 children around the world were being paralyzed by polio every single year. Together with our Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners, governments of the world, donors, and millions of health workers, we have moved mountains to eliminate polio in country after country, region after region.

Last year, the entire World Health Organization (WHO) African region was certified as wild polio-free, an incredible feat that once seemed impossible. My home country, Nigeria, was the last country on the African continent to report a case of wild polio when a young girl named Ya Fana became the last victim of the wild poliovirus in 2016. While Ya Fana will never have the chance to live a life free of polio, along with countless other Nigerian and African polio survivors, Rotary and its partners are committed to ensuring that no African child ever again will have to suffer the devastating and paralysing effects of wild polio.

Today, five out of the six WHO regions are free of wild polio, and just two countries remain where wild polio continues to circulate: Afghanistan and Pakistan. While outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) continue in under-immunized communities in numerous countries, a new tool has been deployed – novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2) – which has a substantially lower risk of causing cVDPVs.

Image credit: Talukdar David / Shutterstock.com

However, a vaccine sitting in a vial does not protect a child. It can only be effective if we continue to reach and immunise all children, which requires hard work, flexibility and innovation. These are just a few of the game-changing approaches we took in the AFRO region:

  • Combatting vaccine hesitancy: Addressing vaccine refusals is vital to polio eradication. In Nigeria, Rotary and our partners work with traditional, religious, and community leaders to encourage community acceptance of polio vaccines, and similar efforts are being deployed in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Reaching children in combat zones: The polio program has found innovative ways to vaccinate children in hard-to-access or conflict-affected areas by conducting flexible and rapid vaccination campaigns and reaching children moving out of insecure areas at checkpoints, markets and camps for internally displaced people.
  • Getting vaccines to hard-to-reach communities: Throughout the African region, millions of health workers have traveled by foot, boat, bicycle, and bus to reach children. Targeted strategies were developed to reach children in places that were previously unreachable, like deploying boats to the Lake Chad region to vaccinate pockets of unimmunized children.
  • Reaching children with integrated services: Providing communities with services beyond polio immunizations is a key component to improving vaccine acceptance. To reach more children in in parts of the African region, polio teams ramped up the delivery of the oral polio vaccine (OPV) alongside other vaccines.

The African region’s milestone demonstrates what is possible when public/private institutions and civil society work together for the greater good. I am confident that we have the tools, strategies, and strength necessary to wipe out wild polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that with continued government and donor support, the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO) region will soon join the AFRO region as wild polio-free.

So we must roll up our sleeves and get the job done, once and for all. We have so many important achievements behind us, but the most important milestone is yet to come: the achievement of a polio-free world.

This blog post is part of our Voices from Africa series. Read other posts in the series here.

Dr. Tunji Funsho

Dr. Tunji Funsho, a cardiologist, is the chair of Rotary’s Nigeria National PolioPlus Committee, leading Rotary’s polio eradication efforts in Nigeria. In 2020, Dr. Funsho was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the world for his work eradicating wild polio in Africa. Dr. Funsho is also a judge for the inaugural Falcon Awards for Disease Elimination.

Social Handles: @dr_funsho, @rotary