Last year, the World Health Organization declared the country to be “polio-free.” That milestone meant the disease was gone from the entire continent of Africa, a major triumph in the multibillion-dollar global effort to eradicate the disease.
But that declaration of “polio-free” turned out to be premature.
Three new cases of polio have been confirmed in areas liberated from Boko Haram militants, prompting health officials to launch a massive campaign to vaccinate millions of children across four countries in West and Central Africa
Before the cases were found, the world appeared extremely close to making polio the second human disease after smallpox to be eradicated. There had been fewer than two-dozen polio cases in 2016, clustered in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Then health officials in Nigeria found three paralyzed kids inside parts of Borno state that had been held by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram.
Dr. Chima Ohuabunwo, an epidemiologist who’s been working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Nigeria for the past five years, says Boko Haram has cut off parts of Borno state, in Nigeria’s northeast, from the rest of the world.
“There’s been no direct in and out movement of persons, or access to health care, for the past two to three years,” Ohuabunwo says.
Earlier this year, he says, half of Borno state was a no-go zone. Government health care workers and international relief groups, including polio vaccination teams, could be attacked or killed if they tried to enter those areas. At the same time, Boko Haram was pillaging farms and destroying health clinics.
“Of about 38 secondary health care facilities in the entire state, 16 were totally burnt down by these insurgents,” Ohuabunwo says.
It’s only after recent military offensives by the Nigerian army into Boko Haram territory that health officials were able to find the three kids who’d been …