Africa Goes A Full Year With No New Polio Cases

Is it soon enough to celebrate?

Last week marked a full year since any new cases of polio have been reported in Africa, according to the Word Health Organization. While the news has been met with limited fanfare — a region isn't considered polio-free until it's gone three years without new cases — this is a huge milestone demonstrating the effectiveness of community-based and culturally relevant global health initiatives.

Though the last "wild" case was recorded in Somalia on Aug. 11, 2014, the strain had been traced back to an outbreak in Nigeria, the last African country where polio is considered endemic.

This step toward eradication is especially encouraging in light of the serial setbacks public health officials have faced in recent years.

The primary reason eradication in Nigeria has been proven so challenging is similar to why the U.S. still has measles outbreaks: miseducation surrounding the vaccine is rampant. In 2003, rumors that the vaccine was meant to sterilize women, contained pork products or caused AIDS spread throughout the majority Muslim northeastern region of Kano. The government halted vaccinations for a year, triggering an outbreak that spread to countries as far as Indonesia.

UNICEF deployed 16,000 local educators to cover rural communities and recruited women to speak to new mothers about giving their children the orally administered vaccine. To address people's concerns surrounding the religious legitimacy of the vaccine, the WHO flew in Muslim scholars to assure local leaders the vaccines are halal. Likewise, officials further assured users of the vaccines being halal by using vaccines manufactured in Indonesia.

One of the challenges to confirming polio's eradication is the fact that a significant portion of Africa's population is rural or nomadic. And even if it is off the continent, the disease still endures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where political instability and large rural populations make polio particularly challenging to tackle. Still, the anti-polio campaign has had billions of dollars behind it, largely from the United Nations, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Representatives of the WHO are hopeful this milestone and the models learned from it mean an end to the drawn-out battle with the disease is in sight.