Africa declared free of wild polio, sufferers reflect their ordeal



Africa was declared free of wild polio on Tuesday by the independent Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for Polio Eradication.

Certification of the milestone, announced during a World Health Organization (WHO) videoconference, means all 47 countries in the WHO’s Africa region have eradicated the viral disease that can cause irreversible paralysis. The last case in Africa was recorded four years ago in northeast Nigeria.

28-year-old Gbemisola Ijigbamigbe, a wheelchair basketball player and para-swimmer based in Nigeria’s commercial city, Abuja, contracted polio aged 11 months.

But she said her childhood was blighted by the emotional pain of wearing over-sized clothes to hide her difficulty in walking.

”I started wearing big clothes because I thought that could cover how I walk, but obviously, it can’t cover it up. I was wearing very big clothes, I was trying to be a tomboy at the same time, trying to mask up all my emotions so that whatever you say does not get to me and all that stuff, but at some point, you can only just hide from the whole world but inside, in my corners, I would cry,’ she told Reuters.

Africa is expected to be declared free of endemic wild polio at a World Health Organization (WHO) ceremony on Tuesday.

The WHO is set to announce that all 47 countries of its African region have eradicated the crippling viral disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours.

Children under five are the most vulnerable, but people can be fully protected with preventative vaccines.

Usman Yusuf, a member of Nigeria’s National Association of Polio Survivors who contracted the disease aged 3, said he looked forward to polio’s eradication.

”We are affected and we don’t expect our children and our younger ones to follow the same route,” he said.

To keep the virus at bay, population immunization coverage rates must be high and constant surveillance is crucial.

Wild polio remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but case numbers worldwide have been cut drastically due to national and regional immunisation for babies and children.

The last case of wild polio in Africa was recorded in Nigeria’s Borno State in August 2016, but Misbahu Lawan-Didi said there is still a risk of it resurfacing if the right things are not done.

Misbahu Lawan Didi contracted the virus at the age of 2. He is now the chairman of the Association of Polio Survivors, and also a UNICEF ambassador for polio.

”I will appeal to them to continue cooperating with the government, to continue cooperating with the international partners, to continue with the vaccination…it is the only protective measure, it is the only way that we are sure that Nigeria will no longer have childhood polio in our country,” he said.

Gbemisola is happy that children will not have to go through the emotional pain she suffered growing up.

Flipping through her training pictures and videos, the Sociology graduate who is also a model, says no one with polio should give up on achieving success in life.

”Polio is not a death sentence, I am here, I am standing, I am here sitting so polio is not a death sentence. Anybody that is suffering from polio…it is even a stepping stone for you,” she said.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), which is backed by the WHO, Rotary International and others, began its push to wipe out polio in 1988, when it was endemic in 125 countries and paralyzed nearly 1,000 children a day globally.

Since then, there has been at least a 99% reduction in cases.

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