Why Africa’s success in eradicating polio is important today

As the world battles a pandemic, Africa has become polio free. Lessons learned can help its fight against COVID-19.

In this photo taken on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016, a health official
A health official administers a polio vaccine to children at a camp for displaced people in Maiduguri, Nigeria on August 28, 2016 [File: AP/Sunday Alamba]

“Could you patent the sun?” This is how American virologist Jonas Salk responded when asked whether he would be patenting his breakthrough polio vaccine.

The polio virus, which once killed or maimed hundreds of thousands of children every year and led to summertime lockdowns, is a step closer to being consigned to the history books. 

With no recorded cases since 2016, the African region has received certification as wild polio virus free by the World Health Organization (WHO) – and this is one of the greatest achievements in public health history.  

Delivering polio vaccines to every child in the African region and wiping out the wild virus is no small feat, and the human resources, skills and experience gained in the process leave behind a legacy in how to tackle diseases and reach the poorest and most marginalised communities with lifesaving services. 

Leadership from all levels of government across party lines, a historic public-private partnership which raised billions, millions of health workers reaching children across the region – from conflict zones to remote areas only accessible by motorbike or helicopter – and a culture of continual improvement were all critical to overcoming challenges and bottlenecks. 

As countries work to suppress COVID-19, many of the same basic traditional public health methods used in polio eradication, including contact tracing and surveillance, are key to breaking the chains of transmission and saving lives and livelihoods from the first coronavirus pandemic in human history.

As recently as 2012, half of all globally recorded cases of wild polio virus were in Nigeria – the last country in the region to rid itself of the virus. However, as with the COVID-19 pandemic, the lesson is that it is never too late to turn a disease outbreak around. Through hard work, new innovations and ensuring that no child was missed, Nigeria and the entire African region have now defeated polio.

Across the region, health workers go village to village and door to door vaccinating children multiple times and offering health advice and support to the community. It is a remarkable effort started by Rotary International, which in the 1980s – when there were hundreds of thousands of cases every year – made a global call for eradication.

The unique public-private partnership was spearheaded by governments from across the world that politically and financially backed the effort, as well as a host of partners including Rotary International, WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

There is a very good reason why the world’s best scientists are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19. Bringing polio to the brink of eradication was only possible because of safe and effective vaccines that were developed jointly by the United States and the USSR at the height of the Cold War.

Putting the common interest of humanity before nationalistic endeavours was a worthy act that paid off not only for the US and the USSR, but for the whole world.

Using the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which aims to fast track diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, WHO is currently working with the public and private sectors to hasten the scientific process and ensure that when new tools are available, they reach those who need them. 

Learning from past cooperation and sharing finite supplies strategically and globally is actually in the national interest of every country.

With the African region hitting the golden number of zero cases of wild polio, the world’s attention will now shift to the remaining places where the virus hides. And the good news is that the two remaining countries that still register cases of wild polio, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have resumed polio vaccination after a brief suspension due to COVID-19. 

A surge of resources and effort is needed to ensure that the world uses this critical window of opportunity to protect all children in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the upcoming low season, during which there is a natural decline in cases of the polio virus.  

Now is the moment to work with all partners and put child vaccination first so that we can end polio and the global health community can go on to tackle other childhood diseases like measles, pneumonia and rotavirus diarrhoea which can be prevented with a vaccine.

While thanking and congratulating governments, health workers, civil society and all groups that have been part of this titanic struggle, it is important to use the momentum to invest further in health systems, as well as the health worker force, to protect people from this pandemic, and prepare them for future disease outbreaks.

Polio and COVID-19 both demonstrate that the best ways to break the chains of disease transmission are working together in solidarity, accelerating the science and continually cooperating to solve problems on the ground and improve service delivery.

Salk’s vision of a polio-free world is within our grasp. Let us grab it with both hands and use it as our inspiration for a safer, healthier world.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.