A quarter-century campaign brings the world tantalizingly close to eradicating a disease
It’s easy not to notice a negative. A house burns down on your block and it’s all you can talk about. But a house doesn’t burn down? Where’s the news?
Still, absence can be the stuff of headlines, and that fact has rarely been truer than it is in Nigeria today—where health officials are celebrating a full year without a single case of polio. A polio-free Nigeria means a polio-free Africa, since it was the only country left of the 47 on the continent where the crippling disease was still endemic. The virus, which as recently as 1988 was endemic in 128 countries, crippling 350,000 children per year, has now been cornered in just two places—Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s barely hanging on there. Wipe polio out in those last two redoubts and it will become only the second disease in history—after smallpox—to have been vaccinated out of existence.
“We are celebrating the first time ever that Nigeria has gone without a case of polio, but with caution,” said Dr. Tunji Funsho, who leads Rotary International’s anti-polio campaign in Nigeria. “Surveillance takes place in every nook and cranny of this country, even in those areas that have been free for years.”
The victory in Nigeria did not come easy—and it almost didn’t happen at all. For more than a generation, it has been Rotary that has led the drive to eradicate polio, administering vaccinations to 2.5 billion children in 122 countries at a cost of $1.4 billion. With the help of UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other groups, the effort paid off comparatively fast. As long ago as 2003, the virus had been chased out of all but six countries and the global caseload was down to just 732. There was talk of eradication by as early as 2005.
But Nigeria scuttled those plans. In the summer of 2003, Muslim clerics in the country’s northern regions halted all vaccinations, spreading the fiction that the vaccines contained HIV and were designed to sterilize Muslim girls. Quickly, the poliovirus did what all viruses do when they’re given that kind of running room: it spread, and fast. By 2005, cases consistent with the Nigeria strain were appearing in a 16-nation band that stretched as far away as Indonesia, before the outbreak could finally be contained.
“This is a disease that can’t be controlled,” said WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer at the time, “it has to be eradicated.”