Malawi finds wild polio case; first in Africa in five years

Investigations show infection is linked to a strain circulating in Pakistan’s Sindh province as WHO sends assistance.

A young girl in Nigeria squirms and cries as a health worker gives her the polio vaccine
Africa was declared free of the wild polio virus in August 2020 after a sustained vaccination programme across the continent [File: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP]

Malawi has declared an outbreak of polio after a young child in the country’s capital, Lilongwe, developed the disease in the first case of the wild polio virus in Africa in more than five years.

The strain found in the child in Lilongwe has been linked to one circulating in Pakistan where the virus remains endemic, the World Health Organization said in a statement on Thursday.

Africa was declared free of wild polio in August 2020, and the WHO said that the new case did not affect that status.

“As long as wild polio exists anywhere in the world all countries remain at risk of importation of the virus,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa. “Following the detection of wild polio in Malawi, we’re taking urgent measures to forestall its potential spread.”

WHO said it was giving its assistance to the health authorities in Malawi, carrying out a risk assessment and outbreak response and deploying the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s (GPEI) rapid response team. It is also stepping up supplemental immunisation.

“The last case of wild polio virus in Africa was identified in northern Nigeria in 2016 and globally there were only five cases in 2021. Any case of wild polio virus is a significant event and we will mobilize all resources to support the country’s response,” said Dr Modjirom Ndoutabe, polio coordinator in the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

Polio is a highly infectious and debilitating disease that is usually spread through contaminated water or food. Invading the nervous system, it can cause total paralysis within hours.

A young girl in Karachi is given drops of polio vaccine on her tongue while friend sits by
A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a young girl in Karachi, Pakistan last month. The wild polio virus remains endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan [Asif Hassan/AFP]

There is no cure for the disease, but an effective vaccine was developed in the 1950s, which has led to its eradication in many parts of the world.

The disease remains endemic not only in Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, who is on his first visit to Pakistan, said on Thursday that continuing and sustained polio vaccination efforts in the two countries were likely to determine whether the world would be able to completely eradicate the virus.

Since 1988, worldwide cases of the virus have dropped by 99 percent, from more than 350,000 to just five cases in Afghanistan and Pakistan last year, according to GPEI data.

Source: Al Jazeera