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 poliovirus in Africa in more than five years.
The case has been found to be genetically linked to the WPV1 detected in October 2019 in Pakistan’s Sindh province — one of two countries where it continues to remain endemic. The other is Afghanistan.
“As an imported case from Pakistan, this detection does not affect the African region’s wild poliovirus-free certification status,” the WHO said.
Africa was declared free of indigenous wild polio in August 2020 after eliminating all forms of wild polio. No polio cases had occurred on the continent for the past four years — the threshold for eradication.
“Following the detection of wild polio in Malawi, we’re taking urgent measures to forestall its potential spread,” the WHO´s Africa regional director Matshidiso Moeti said in a statement.
He continued, “Thanks to a high level of polio surveillance in the continent and the capacity to quickly detect the virus, we can swiftly launch a rapid response and protect children from the debilitating impact of this disease.”
The WHO said it was supporting Malawi in conducting a risk assessment and outbreak response, including extra vaccination. Surveillance of the disease is being stepped up in neighbouring countries.
“The last case of wild poliovirus in Africa was identified in northern Nigeria in 2016 and globally there were only five cases in 2021. Any case of wild poliovirus is a significant event and we will mobilise all resources to support the country´s response,” said Dr Modjirom Ndoutabe, the WHO Africa region´s polio coordinator.
Poliomyelitis — the medical term for polio — is an acutely infectious and contagious virus which attacks the spinal cord and causes irreversible paralysis in children. While there is no cure for polio, vaccinating people to prevent them from becoming infected thus breaks the cycle of transmission.
The August 2020 declaration that Africa was free of the virus that causes polio was a landmark in a decades-long campaign to eradicate the notorious disease around the world.