In Somalia, a major campaign to stop the spread of polio
STORIES FROM THE FIELD
By Susannah Price
A serious polio outbreak in Somalia is threatening to grow, while the urgent effort to deliver vaccinations continues.
MOGADISHU, Somalia, 14 August 2013 – The mother of 3-year-old Mohamed Seef Naasir never realized the importance of vaccinating her children against polio until it was too late. The family lives hand-to -mouth in a makeshift shelter in a camp in the Somali capital Mogadishu for people displaced by the famine and conflict.
Khadija says that two months ago her son had a high fever that didn't come down even after he was given medicine.
"One morning he called me and told me he couldn't stand up," she says. "I saw his leg was swollen. I helped him to stand up, but his whole leg was paralyzed."
The story is all too common in Somalia, where restricted access for aid workers, insecurity and lack of public awareness have left a large proportion of children unvaccinated against polio and other deadly diseases.
Six years after the country was declared polio-free, there are now more cases of the disease in Somalia than in all other countries combined: the World Health Organization has confirmed 101 cases since it was first identified in a 2-year-old girl in May.
There is no cure for polio, which is spread through water or food contaminated with faeces from an infected person. It thrives in overcrowded places with poor sanitation, such as these camps for the displaced.
Dr. Abdikarim Aseyr, a polio expert in Mogadishu, says the fact that because many people have not been vaccinated and have weak immune systems, it is crucial to move quickly in reaching communities with vaccinations.
"The only medicine is prevention, and that's why we urge all the people to receive polio vaccination," he says.
Religious leaders have also given their support to the vaccination campaign, emphasizing that parents have a duty to protect their children. Sheikh Abdulkadir Mohamed Soomow, an Islamic scholar in Mogadishu, points out that Islam calls on its followers to find a cure for illnesses.
"In the case of polio, we urge the people of Somalia to be vaccinated," he says. "The doctors tell us that polio can kill, and it's harmful to both adults and children."
So far, five rounds of house-to-house polio vaccinations have been carried out, with several more planned. Some campaigns have targeted children under 5 years, others under 10 and others adults as well. UNICEF, the World Health Organization and their partners have helped procure and distribute vaccines. The Government of Japan, among other donors, has provided an emergency grant to provide oral polio vaccinations for more than 2.8 million children under 10 years old.
It is already too late to save those affected by this year's outbreak. The challenge now is to ensure that the outbreak is contained as quickly as possible, so that Somalia can once again be polio-free.