South Africa declared polio-free

24 October 2006

South Africa has been officially declared free of the preventable, but incurable, childhood disease of polio.

The Global Certification Commission’s subcommittee in Africa, the Africa Region Certificate Commission, (ARCC) announced last week that there was sufficient evidence pointing to the non-existence of the virus that causes wild-type polio, or polio occurring through natural infection, in the country.

At its meeting in Uganda last Tuesday, the ARCC awarded South Africa polio-free certification based on the time elapsed since the last confirmed wild polio case in the country, in 1989.

According to the Department of Health, the percentage of South African children vaccinated with their third dose of polio vaccine – and thus given “Routine OPV3 Coverage” protecting them from polio – is now above 80%.

In addition, surveillance for “sudden floppy paralysis,” a key symptom of polio, has been at a satisfactory level for at least three years.

However, while the ARCC expressed satisfaction with the measures South Africa had in place against polio, it stressed the importance of continuing to monitor for possible polio cases, and of responding promptly should the disease be imported.

South Africa needed to be prepared to act swiftly to prevent the spread of polio from any such importation, the commission said, and urged the country to strengthen its routine coverage to ensure that every child was immunised.

South Africa acted swiftly in June to prevent importation of the disease following an outbreak in Namibia that led to the death of 19 people.

According to KidsHealth.org, polio, or poliomyelitis, is a contagious, historically devastating disease that was virtually eliminated from the Western hemisphere in the second half of the 20th century, following the discovery of a vaccine.

Polio mainly affects children under five years of age. While there is no cure for the disease, it can be prevented: the polio vaccine, given multiple times, can protect a child for life.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a global effort to eradicate the disease saw polio cases decrease by over 99% since 1988, from more than 350 000 cases in more than 125 endemic countries to 1 951 reported cases in 2005.

“In 2006, only four countries in the world remain endemic for the disease – the lowest number in history,” the WHO says on its website.

But despite these achievements, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative “faces an increase in global cases in 2006, due to an ongoing outbreak in northern Nigeria, and a new outbreak in western Uttar Pradesh, India,” the WHO says.

SouthAfrica.info reporter and BuaNews

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