ABUJA, Nigeria, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- For the first time, Africa has gone one year without a case of polio, a landmark step in declaring an eradication of the disease.
The last report of an infection of polio, a disease attacking the nervous system and causing paralysis, occurred Aug. 11, 2015, in Somalia. Three years without polio qualifies Africa for a certification of being polio-free.
The milestone "is extremely encouraging and demonstrates real progress. However, it must also be taken within context, and with caution," said Dr. Hamid Jafari, who heads the World Health Organization's polio eradication initiative. "Our biggest danger now is complacency. We cannot afford that local leaders or governments stop the fight now, we are too close. The focus remains on continuing to vaccinate children, no matter where they live, and to strengthen surveillance everywhere."
The global effort to eliminate polio began in earnest in 1988, when 350,000 cases were reported in 125 countries. The number of cases has since declined by 99 percent.
The challenges to keeping Africa polio-free include militant groups, notably Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia, interrupting vaccinations and public awareness campaigns. Among tens of thousands of casualties, Boko Haram has killed at least nine people involved in vaccination programs. In predominately Muslim northern Nigeria, some state governors and religious leaders claim vaccinations are contaminated by western powers to spread sterility, HIV and AIDS among the population.
"I just hope Boko Haram will not be the Achilles' heel of our work," said Oyewale Tomori, Nigerian Academy of Science virology professor. "Unless we get rid of the insurgency, we cannot be sure we will eradicate polio. Getting vaccines to displaced people will be crucial."