Nigerian military helicopters rushed emergency polio vaccines to Nigeria’s northern state of Borno on Friday morning, in response to Africa’s first cases of the polio virus in more than two years.
A day before, the Nigerian government confirmed that two toddlers were paralyzed by the disease, nearly a year after the country was declared polio-free.
These new cases have prompted Nigerian health officials to coordinate an emergency response with WHO, aiming to vaccinate nearly 5 million children in the northeastern parts of the country to contain the outbreak, NPR reported.
“This is an important reminder that the world cannot afford to be complacent as we are on the brink of polio eradication – we will only be done when the entire world has been certified polio-free,” said Michel Zaffran, WHO director of polio eradication.
WHO said the pair of new cases were linked to a polio strain last detected in Borno five years ago. In 2012, more than half of polio cases worldwide were located in Nigeria, WHO said.
In September, the World Health Organization removed Nigeria from its polio-endemic list, meaning the African continent, as well, had eradicated the disease. That meant only two countries — Pakistan and Afghanistan — still reported polio cases.
Borno state health commissioner Ibrahim Miringa told the Associated Press on Friday that attacks by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram made it difficult for health workers to access the region, specifically in Jere and Gwoza, where the two new cases were identified.
In February 2013, nine women administering polio vaccines to children in Nigeria were shot dead. Although no group had claimed responsibility for the deaths, witnesses said Boko Haram was behind the attack, The Guardian reported.
Suspicion that vaccinations are a western plot has also pervaded the area. In 2003, Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s plan to immunize more than 15 million in West and Central Africa was stopped in its tracks when three states in northern Nigeria boycotted the vaccination.