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Polio case in Kenya refugee camp raises fears and concerns

© UNICEF Kenya/2006/Cameron
Thousands of families have crossed into Kenya from Somalia since June following an upsurge in the Somali conflict. The risk of disease outbreak is high.

By Sabine Dolan

NEW YORK, USA, 26 October 2006 – As the escalating conflict in Somalia triggers an influx of refugees into neighbouring Kenya, a child living in a camp along the border has been diagnosed with polio. It is Kenya’s first reported case in 22 years.

“On September 17, a three-year-old girl was brought by her mother to a hospital in Hagadera refugee camp in Daadab, northeastern Kenya. She was suffering from paralysis,” explains UNICEF Communication Officer Sara Cameron. “A sample of her stool was sent to authorities in Kenya and overseas. Within a month it was diagnosed that this little girl had polio.”

Ms. Cameron was part of a team of representatives from the Kenyan Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF that visited the girl, who has lived her entire life in the refugee camp. An investigation into the case determined that although the virus originated in Somalia, it had been evolving for eight months – suggesting that it had spent much of that time in Kenya.

Public health emergency

“This means that the risk of polio appearing again in Kenya is really quite high,” says Ms. Cameron, “because polio travels easily, particularly in unsanitary conditions. We don't know if was brought in by refugees, we don't know if it was brought in by the migrants who travel across the border between Kenya and Somalia. But what we do know is that we have a really serious public health emergency in Kenya.”

© UNICEF Kenya/2006/Cameron
A three-year-old girl in Kenya’s North Eastern Province is the first person in the country to be diagnosed with polio in 22 years.

In a worrisome development, the stricken girl’s immunization card showed she had received two doses of oral polio vaccine in 2005 and four doses of in 2006. Although the vaccine is highly effective in most cases, some children may require more doses than others to gain immunity.

During the first week of November, the Kenyan Government, UNICEF and WHO plan to conduct a campaign delivering polio vaccination to all children under the age of five across the five districts closest to the border with Somalia. UNICEF is also raising funds for emergency immunization.

“We need about $5 million to carry out two rounds of national immunization days,” notes Ms. Cameron. “This will go ahead in January and will aim to reach around five and a half million children throughout Kenya.”

Vaccinating refugee children

There are presently three refugee camps – Ifo, Dagahaley and Hagadera – set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Dadaab. Since January, the camps have received nearly 35,000 new refugees from Somalia, most of them women and children.

More than 162,000 people are sheltered in the camps and the number is growing, even though they already far exceed the recommended capacity of 20,000 per camp. The influx places immense pressure on camp facilities, and living conditions are desperate. Priority needs include expanded access to health care, safe water and education, as well as child protection.

Upon their arrival and before being taken to the camps, refugees now go through a processing stage in which they register and are vaccinated against polio. Even prior to the recent polio diagnosis, emergency immunization of children under five was being carried out in the camps.

“We know that polio is a highly infectious disease,” says Ms. Cameron. “It can travel very, very quickly. It doesn’t very often kill children, but it can cause terrible paralysis, and we all have to work together to make sure that it really doesn’t spread any further.”




25 October 2006:
UNICEF Communication Officer Sara Cameron talks about the recent discovery of a polio case in a refugee camp in Kenya.
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