Q&A: ‘We can eradicate polio from the world’

Nigerian doctor Tunji Funsho talks to Al Jazeera about immunisation efforts in Africa, which was declared wild polio-free this year. 

Dr Tunji Funsho was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year [Photo credit: Rotary International]

The viral polio disease has over the years crippled hundreds of thousands of children in Africa and other parts of the world.

But on August 25, some four years after Africa’s last case was recorded in northern Nigeria, the continent was declared free of wild polio. Still, vaccine-derived strains of the virus remain in more than a dozen African countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries in the world where the debilitating virus remains endemic.

Polio is transmitted from person to person, mainly through a faecal-oral route or, less frequently, through contaminated water or food. It largely affects children under the age of five, multiplying inside the intestines from where it can invade the nervous system and cause paralysis, according to the World Health Organization.

There is no cure for polio, but the disease can be prevented through the oral administration of a vaccine.

Last month, Dr Tunji Funsho, a cardiologist based in Lagos, Nigeria, was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year for his work in eradicating wild polio in Africa.

Al Jazeera spoke to Funsho, chair of Rotary International’s Nigeria National PolioPlus Committee, about the progress and challenges in tackling the viral disease, as well as the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on immunisation campaigns.

Al Jazeera: Africa was declared wild polio-free earlier this year. What does this certification mean for the continent as a whole and its people?

Tunji Funsho: It’s a major milestone for us. As recently as 1996, when the Kick Polio out of Africa initiative was inaugurated through the prompting of Rotary International by former South African President Nelson Mandela, Africa was having 70,000 cases of wild poliovirus every year.

It was that initiative that galvanised African countries to start regular mass campaigns, going from house to house to make sure that we don’t lose any child with the oral polio vaccine.

Twelve years ago, Africa was responsible for about 50 percent of all polio cases in the world, so we see it as a great milestone. But more importantly, no child will ever again be paralysed by wild poliovirus in the African continent.

The lesson is if we can do it in Africa, we can do it in the world. If we can do it in polio, we can do it for any other kind of intervention.

Al Jazeera: Despite the certification, there are still vaccine-derived cases in about 16 countries which are currently experiencing outbreaks. So what kind of challenges and barriers does the continent continue to face?

Funsho: The wild poliovirus is quite distinct from the cases of vaccine-derived polio, which is what is happening in countries mostly in West Africa, the Horn of Africa and parts of central Africa.

With the appropriate outbreak response, we can put an end to vaccine-derived polio within six months.

The current outbreaks are festered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had restricted, until last month, our ability to mount robust outbreak response campaigns to immunise children.

I’m quite confident, now that we have restarted the outbreak response in some countries, even vaccine-derived [polio] would be a thing of the past.

Al Jazeera: What effect has the coronavirus pandemic had on the progress made in polio eradication in Africa?

Funsho: It has slowed down the ability to respond immediately to outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio.

It has also impacted our routine ability to ensure we continue to increase our routine immunisation because families have not been accessing primary healthcare facilities because of the pandemic. So, there’s been a dip in routine immunisation, which is very important.

The lesson is if we can do it in Africa, we can do it in the world. If we can do it in polio, we can do it for any other kind of intervention.

by Tunji Funsho, Rotary International

It has also diverted resources – both human and material – from polio eradication-related activities to COVID-19 containment activities.

But thankfully, at least in most African countries, COVID-19 is now on a marked decline. We’re able now to improve on our routine immunisation and mount our group response campaigns against vaccine-derived polio.

Al Jazeera: Countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to face challenges because of mistrust and a lack of awareness about the vaccine. Polio workers are often targeted or families refuse to immunise their children. Is that something also seen in Nigeria and other African countries?

Funsho: Predominantly in Nigeria we had those kinds of scenarios between 2001 and 2003, as well as from 2008 to 2009, in Kano and Borno state. But, those have been sporadic. Thankfully, we don’t have that kind of challenge any more in Nigeria, which is what helped us get to the milestone.

Al Jazeera: What more needs to be done to ensure that children in Africa and also around the world remain polio-free? What should be the priority?

Funsho: In Africa, in particular, there’s a need to mount robust advocacy governance at every level and invest in resources that will keep all vaccine-preventable diseases at bay, including the wild poliovirus.

In other words, to ensure that every child gets the routine immunisation, as and when due because that is the kind of guarantee that will prevent the resurgence of polio even if it gets imported from another country.

We need to put a lot of efforts to continue to advocate for governments not to assume that, because Africa has been certified polio-free, resources should be diverted and taken somewhere else.

As a matter of fact, a lot of resources need to be poured into primary healthcare so that the routine immunisation can continue and every child born will get the due numbers of the various antigen needs.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera