In Somaliland, volunteer vaccinators help contain the threat of polio
By Susannah Price
In northern Somalia, volunteer vaccinators are trying to contain the country’s recent outbreak of polio – and so far, they’re succeeding.
HARGEISA, Somalia, 18 December 2013 – In May 2013, the first case of polio seen in Somalia in more than six years was announced in Mogadishu. Plans for mass vaccination campaigns were drawn up. The authorities in Hargeisa, in Somalia’s northern region of Somaliland, took no chances, and they announced a high alert. Somaliland, Puntland and South Central regions launched an emergency vaccination campaign in June.
There have been vaccination campaigns in Somaliland every month since then, and no new cases of polio have been reported, although there are currently more than 180 polio cases in Somalia – the highest number anywhere in the world.
The success of the campaign in Somaliland is largely thanks to the army of volunteer polio vaccinators who have turned out each month to provide vaccinations door-to-door, as well as in public spaces and at transit points, receiving only a small stipend for their work.
Amina Aden, a polio vaccinator, has volunteered for the past seven years, but this year she has been especially busy. She arrives at the collection point at dawn to pick up a special cold box of the polio vaccines, which need to be stored at a low temperature. The boxes are loaded onto the bus, and the vaccinators climb aboard.
After picking up other vaccinators along the way, the team heads for the busy market in Mohamed Muge district of Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland. There they explain to the shoppers and stall keepers the dangers of polio, how easily it is transmitted, its potentially deadly effects and the lack of any cure.
Before the outbreak, only children under 5 received vaccinations. Given the increased risk, however, adults are now being vaccinated as well. On an average day, Ms. Aden and her team vaccinate nearly 500 people simply by squeezing two drops of vaccine into their mouths.
Ms. Aden says that they used to have to plead with people to get vaccinated, and were often refused, but gradually more people began to understand the link between vaccinations and good health.
“Earlier, when a child was paralyzed by polio, they used to say it was a normal thing or a curse,” she says. “But we made them understand that it was polio, and the reason why the numbers of those affected decreased is because of vaccinations.”
The campaign, supported by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, has been publicized through radio and television announcements. At the Mohamed Muge camp for displaced people, social mobilizers spread out across the area, trying to persuade people of all ages to be vaccinated.
Hodan Osman Abdullahi, who has come with her three children, said she heard on the radio that they should be vaccinated.
“I bring my children every month, because they say polio causes disability for the children, and you see all people are bringing their children here,” she says. “And now I can see you are also vaccinating the adults.”
Across Hargeisa town, another polio team is walking from house to house, knocking on doors, and making sure everyone receives their two drops. Aiyan Jama, a polio vaccinator, says there is often resistance, particularly from the adults, but once she gives all the information, they agree to take it.
Before the current outbreak in Somalia, fewer than one in five children in Somaliland received the recommended three doses of the polio vaccine by their first birthday.
The vaccination campaigns are organized by the Somali authorities, with the support of UNICEF and WHO. UNICEF received an emergency contribution of US$ 1.5 million from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and another US$ 1.3 million from the Government of Japan. These funds were used to procure more than 5 million doses of the Polio vaccine and helped in the distribution to centres spread across the country.
Dr. Osman Hussein Osami, Director General of the Somaliland Ministry of Health, says that because of the leadership by the Government and the fact that many politicians publically received vaccinations, there has been a huge increase in the number of people taking their vaccines.
“We are still not there yet,” Dr. Osami says. “But what we have seen is very positive and it is a step in the right direction.”