Nigeria has officially rid itself of the transmission of polio, which means Africa is one step closer to being completely free of the disease, the World Health Organization has declared.
Once considered the epicenter of the disease, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide in 2012, according to WHO. But since no new cases have been reported since July of last year, the country is being lauded with having halted the spread of the disease.
“We Nigerians are proud today,” Ado Muhammad, executive director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, said in a statement. “With local innovation and national persistence, we have beaten polio.”
While Nigeria was the only remaining country in Africa to contend with the disease, it will take another two years of no new cases before WHO can declare the entire continent polio-free. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the sole two countries where polio remains endemic.
Mainly striking children under 5, polio first presents with a fever and cold, and can cause lifelong paralysis. Because it is highly contagious, eliminating the disease required an aggressive vaccination program, which was, at times, met with considerable pushback.
Some religious leaders rejected the vaccination efforts, deeming them part of a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children, according to NPR.
In 2003, vaccination programs were suspended in Kano. Ten years later, gunmen killed nine polio immunization workers in Northern Nigeria at two clinics after a four-day vaccination drive, according to The New York Times.
But thanks to a collaboration of health workers, government officials and religious leaders, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was able to assuage Nigerians’ fears and effectively implement the immunization campaign. The initiative is a conglomerate of a number of groups including, national governments, WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others.
The initiative elicited more than 200,000 volunteers to repeatedly immunize more than 45 million children under 5, according to WHO. Increased community involvement and the establishment of Emergency Operation Centers also played key roles in putting an end to the disease.
But even amid the celebration, WHO has warned that “continued vigilance” is required to ensure that polio doesn’t return.
“Eradicating polio will be one of the greatest achievements in human history,” the WHO said in a statement. “Nigeria has brought the world one major step closer to achieving this goal and it’s critical that we seize this opportunity to end polio for good and ensure future generations of children are free from this devastating disease.”
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