Nigeria thought it finally won against polio, but the virus that had ravaged the African nation just two years prior has apparently made a comeback, with the country reporting that two children have been left paralyzed after contracting the wild poliovirus in the northeastern state of Borno. The cases are the first reports of their kind since 2014.
The discovery effectively nixed the hopes of global health authorities being able to declare Africa polio-free soon. The last time the wild poliovirus was reported in Nigeria was in July 2014, and the last time it was reported from anywhere on the continent was from Somalia just one month later. The World Health Organization (WHO) requires three years with no confirmed cases before declaring a region polio-free, as such Africa had merely one year to go before it earned that distinction.
"We are deeply saddened by the news," said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa.
The two latest cases were two children from the Gwoza and Jere areas of Borno state, according to Nigeria's Health Minister Issac Adewole. Coincidentally, that area has been the epicenter of an insurgency waged by Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than 2 million since their fight began in 2009.
During Boko Haram's time in Borno, the group has been responsible for destroying hundreds of health centers, and has caused so much damage in some areas that it has become hard for vaccinators to do their jobs effectively.
Of course, Nigerian health officials are not taking this development lying down, announcing that the country will launch a national emergency response plan that would see 1 million children across Borno state immediately immunized. Furthermore, the immunization effort would extend to the neighboring states of Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe, raising the number of children vaccinated to around 5 million.
"The overriding priority now is to rapidly immunize all children around the affected area and ensure that no other children succumb to this terrible disease," said Moeti. The cases highlight the need for vaccination programs to reach remote areas of Nigeria, including the Lake Chad region, which borders Niger, Cameroon and Chad and has been the site of multiple Boko Haram attacks.
Polio, otherwise known as poliomyelitis, is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that invades the nervous system. It can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. The disease mainly affects children under the age of 5, and the symptoms include fatigue, vomiting, fever, headache, stiffness of the neck and pain in the limbs.
According to the WHO, one in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralyzed by polio, up to 10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.
Two years ago, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide. Since then, however, the West African country has made great strides in eliminating the virus, and even recently celebrated going two years without a case just last month. As of now, there have only been 21 cases of wild poliovirus reported in 2016, with Pakistan and Afghanistan being the only other countries to report outbreaks.
In the meantime, with the return of polio in Nigeria, the country will have to wait until the summer of 2019, at the earliest, to declare itself polio-free.