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Polio outbreak in Somalia threatens to spread

© UNICEF Somalia/2013/Holt
Faisa Abdullahi, 8, caught polio during the last outbreak in Somalia, six years ago. She lives with her family in a camp for internally displaced people, and walks with the aid of crutches.

By Susannah Price

With the first reported cases of polio in six years, Somalia faces a potentially serious outbreak of the disease amidst a continuing humanitarian crisis.

MOGADISHU, Somalia, 18 July 2013 – Faisa Abdullahi, 8 years old, lives in a camp for internally displaced people, where her family moved after their cattle died. She had never been given any vaccinations, and during the last polio outbreak, Faisa contracted the disease. Now she can only walk with the help of her crutches.

She attends school in the camp, a tent that shields the pupils from the elements.

“Sometimes my legs are very sore and I can't stand up,” she says. “I was the only one in my family to get sick like this, but in my school there are three of them who are sick like me. We all have to walk with sticks.”

© UNICEF Somalia/2013/Holt
Abdi, 8, who also caught polio during the last outbreak, walks towards his teacher in a makeshift classroom in a camp for internally displaced people in Mogadishu.

In spite of the challenges, Faisa manages to keep a positive outlook.

“Some of the children are not very nice to us because of this,” she says. “But they don't understand what it is like to be sore like this. It is OK though, because my family are nice to me.”

New outbreak

Since the confirmation in May that a 2-year-old girl had contracted polio – the first reported case in Somalia since 2007 – 66 cases have been reported, most of them in or around Mogadishu.

That number is expected to rise.

Experts are particularly concerned that in some areas of south central Somalia, immunization activities have not taken place in more than three years, and they have warned the outbreak could spread to neighbouring countries. A surveillance alert for polio has been issued to all countries across the Horn of Africa.

Most people infected with the poliovirus are never aware they have been infected. For those who contract it, there is no cure and little help.

During the last polio outbreak in Somalia, between 2005 and 2007, there were 228 cases, many of them children from families who were displaced by conflict or famine and were forced to live in camps in basic shelters.

© UNICEF Somalia/2013/Holt
A young girl receives polio vaccination drops at a school in Mogadishu.

The conditions today create a similar risk, and unless measures are taken quickly and comprehensively, the outbreak could spread not only within Somalia but to neighbouring countries as well. With the support of UNICEF and the World Health Organization, Somali authorities have launched emergency vaccination campaigns to prevent the current outbreak from spreading further.

Some cases have been reported in neighbouring Kenya, an additional cause for concern, given the extent of cross-border movements.

So far, four vaccination campaigns have been carried out. During the last round, held earlier this month, children as well as adults in South Central Zone (which includes Mogadishu) were vaccinated. Many in this area were never vaccinated and remain at high risk, and therefore it is hoped these measures will quickly stop poliovirus circulation. In Somaliland and Puntland, where no cases have been reported so far, children under age 5 were vaccinated.

In all, 6 million people have been targeted for vaccination. The next countrywide campaign is planned for 18–21 August for all children under age 10, with additional campaigns to follow in the next months.



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