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Africa now free of wild poliovirus, the World Health Organization says

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File photo: Since 1996, eradication efforts "have prevented up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis and saved approximately 180,000 lives," the WHO said.
File photo: Since 1996, eradication efforts "have prevented up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis and saved approximately 180,000 lives," the WHO said.   -   Copyright  MOHAMED SHEIKH NOR/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Africa is now free of the wild poliovirus disease, which can cause paralysis in children, The World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

The announcement comes after no cases were reported for four years on the continent, with the last case detected in Nigeria.

Eradication efforts since 1996 "have prevented up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis and saved approximately 180,000 lives," the UN agency said.

Poliomyelitis -- the medical term for polio -- is an acutely infectious and contagious virus that attacks the spinal cord and causes irreversible paralysis in children.

“This is an incredible and emotional day,” WHO Africa director Matshidiso Moeti said, but she urged vigilance as the coronavirus threatens vaccination and surveillance efforts.

It is the second time a virus has been eradicated in Africa, after the elimination of smallpox four decades ago, according to the WHO.

Poliovirus is typically spread in the faeces of an infected person and is picked up through contaminated water or food.

Vaccinating people to prevent them from becoming infected breaks the cycle of transmission and eventually eradicates the virus.

In 1988 the WHO, UNICEF and Rotary launched the worldwide campaign to eradicate the disease.

Back then there were 350,000 cases globally.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are now the only two countries believed to still have the wild poliovirus.

On the same day, the Democratic Republic of Congo announced that a 25-month epidemic of measles that killed more than 7,000 children was now over.