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Joy for Kenya’s polio envoys as Africa declared free of the virus

Health & Science
 Dr Mwita Riro, a polio survivor and consultant physician at Kiambu Level Five Hospital. Dr Riro suffered polio at one year and has been advocating for immunization through social media platforms. [Courtesy]   

For many years, hundreds of Kenyans have been hit by polio. But yesterday, it was celebration for Harold Kipchumba and others like him, when the African Regional Certification Commission officially declared Africa free of the wild polio virus.

Bring up the subject of immunisation and Harold Kipchumba leans heavily forward on his crutches and animatedly holds court on the subject. 

But behind the relaxed and convivial façade lies a woeful tale of tears, love and pain that Kipchumba, Kenya’s immunisation ambassador, has been through.

This marks the second huge achievement for Africa after eradicating smallpox in May 1980. Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for Polio Eradication, officially declared on Tuesday that the African Region is free of wild polio virus.

“Today is a historic day for Africa. The ARCC is pleased to announce that the region has successfully met the certification criteria for wild polio eradication, with no cases of the wild polio virus reported in the region for four years,” said Prof Rose Gana Fomban Leke, ARCC chairperson.  

In 2005, Kenya was certified polio-virus free but suffered a setback in 2018 after live viruses were found in samples collected from Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate.

The decision by ARCC comes in after an exhaustive, decades-long process of documentation and analysis of polio surveillance, immunisation and laboratory capacity of the region’s 47 member states, which included conducting field verification visits to each country.

Polio is a viral disease that affects children below the age of five and is transmitted from person-to-person mainly through the faecal-oral route.

According to WHO, there are three types of wild polio virus; Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3. Type 2 was eradicated in 1999 and no case of type 3 has ever been reported since the last case in Nigeria in 2012. Wild polio virus is currently affecting two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Kipchumba, who on 2015, was recognised as UN person of the year on health, applauded the role played by Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners, head of African states, health authorities, donors and volunteers who have worked collectively to kick out polio out of Africa.

“I wish the certification of wild-polio virus eradication in Africa had taken place 55 years ago.  I could have lived to my fullest potential. I could have become the army general that I had dreamt to be,” Kipchumba said.

At the age of four, Kipchumba suffered wild-polio, a disease his mother thought was a normal malaise but which turned out to be a life time journey of suffering with no cure.

After realising the disease had no cure, he accepted his predicament of surviving a permanent disability. But the society was not kind to his parents - they were blamed of being cursed. Kipchumba, born and raised in Baringo, missed the fun of growing up as a child, running and playing with his peers.

In 2013, he decided to be part of the solution, with a dream of having polio eradicated globally, following polio outbreak which left 14 people paralysed.

Since then, he has been mobilising polio survivors in all their diversity to put a face to the disease and share their stories, through community engagements, mass media, meetings, campaigns, development partners and government initiatives.

According to the goodwill ambassador, main challenge in eradicating polio has been opposition from some religious and community groups. 

However, his fear lies with Covid-19 irrespective of certification, saying Kenya risks gains made in the prevention childhood diseases following a drop in immunisation.

The data shared by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe to the departmental committee on health regarding home births and routine immunisation for children during the Covid-19 period, reveals that monthly immunisation of children dropped from 107,300 to 98,000.

The number of children immunised for months of January and June 2020 was 606,000 as compared to 643,000, during same period last year.

Dr Mwita Riro, polio survivor and consultant physician in Kiambu Level Five Hospital is also among celebrated polio ambassadors.

Born in Makaragwe in Kuria in the 1970s, Riro has been advocating childhood vaccination, through social media platforms and civic education, having suffered polio at only one year.

“Having been a victim of polio at a tender age, it is good to hear the virus is no more in Africa. This is a success story by healthcare workers and advocacy. This is truly good news,” said Riro.

Aluta continua

Riro said the government entities should not relent, but rather continue to advocate for childhood immunisation against polio, tuberculosis (TB), diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and measles.

He recalled how his parents brought traditional herbalists who could massage his limbs, but still, he could not stand up. Gradually, they learnt he had polio.

In school, the doctor said he missed playing, more so, he wanted to be a rugby player.

During his internship at the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru, the facility made him a special stool that would enable him conduct surgeries. “The stool was nostalgic, it was known as sina makosa (I have no trouble). And my doctor friends always said I was on my own, and had to make things work. This strengthened me,” said the doctor.

- Additional reporting by Saada Hassan

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