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Press release

Amid conflict, a "Miraculous" victory over polio for Somalia

UNICEF calls for peace to ensure continued immunizations campaigns


NAIROBI/GENEVA/NEW YORK, 28 March 2004 - With the last case of polio reported in 2002, Somalia has been removed from the list of polio-endemic countries. As a major polio immunization campaign begins, UNICEF is calling this achievement a “miraculous victory for children over conflict and devastation.”

“If polio can be stopped in Somalia, it can be stopped anywhere,” said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF’s Executive Director.  “This success is a testament to the will of the Somali people and the effectiveness of strategies in place to stop the virus. If the remaining six endemic countries employ these strategies with equal determination, the world’s children will be finally free of this crippling disease.”

Polio is now endemic only in Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt.

Starting today, tens of thousands of vaccinators set out on the first of Somalia’s 2004 National Immunization Days (NIDs), a three-day trek through the country’s harsh and hostile environment to deliver the polio vaccine to every child under 5 years old.  In previous years Somalia’s NIDs have reached over 90 per cent of Somali children, an impressive figure in a country where the infrastructure remains devastated after years of relentless civil conflict.

Since they were launched eight years ago by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), the vaccination campaigns have acted as a vehicle for peace, achieving cooperation among communities and gaining access to locations which had formerly been “no go areas.”  Militia have served as bodyguards for vaccinators moving through conflict zones.

But with heightened tension following the killing of two aid workers in Somaliland last week, Bellamy warned that the immunization campaign for children could still be sabotaged by needless violence. She urged Somali leaders to commit to a peace process designed to protect children’s rights and ensure protection measures are effective.

UNICEF lauded the Somali people for working together to wipe out polio.

“In the absence of a central government over the last 13 years, the success of these initiatives has been based on the dedication of Somali communities,”  said Jesper Morch, UNICEF’s representative in Somalia. “There is no question of resistance to immunization in Somalia. Somalis are determined to immunize their children, despite the huge challenges they face.”

Outside of Somalia, the global eradication campaign has recently been threatened by a crisis in Nigeria, where a suspension in immunization activities in Kano State due to fierce resistance by some local Islamic groups, has allowed the virus to re-infect eight formerly polio-free countries in west and central Africa. 

In Somalia, however, traditional and Islamic leaders have been a major force behind the polio eradication programme, actively participating in immunization campaigns, and calling for communities to immunize their children by spreading the word through their announcements from the mosques.

Somalia may now be free of polio, but Somali children are facing a host of other harsh challenges, said Bellamy.

“After years of devastating war and disruption, these children are among the most vulnerable in the world,” she said, urging the international community to provide the necessary resources to address this “critical” situation.

Less than half of Somalia’s children are routinely immunized against infectious disease, a significant percentage are malnourished, and 224 in every thousand will die before they reach the  age of five.

Bellamy also encouraged donor governments to close the $130 million funding gap
for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative - money needed urgently to support the massive operation currently underway to get the polio vaccine to every child in Somalia and other countries where the virus still circulates, and also to maintain global surveillance for new polio cases. 

“It would be a tragedy to allow polio to return to Somalia and other polio-free countries simply for lack of resources,” she said.

The Polio Partners

The World Health Organization, Rotary International and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF spearhead the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

The polio eradication coalition includes:  the governments and local authorities of countries affected by poliomyelitis; private foundations (e.g. United Nations Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); development banks (e.g. World Bank); donor governments (e.g. Canada, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, United Kingdom, Italy, and United States of America); the European Commission; humanitarian and non-governmental organizations (e.g. the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies); and corporate partners (e.g. Aventis Pasteur, Wyeth).  Volunteers in developing countries also play a key role; 10 million have participated in mass immunization campaigns.

UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, foundations, businesses, and governments. Contributions to UNICEF's ongoing support for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative can be made at http://www.supportunicef.org/

For further information please contact us:

Julia Spry-Leverton, UNICEF Somalia, Nairobi: +254 2 623958,
Madeline Eisner, UNICEF East and Southern Africa:  +254 2 622 214,
Claire Hajaj, UNICEF Media, New York: +1 212 326 7566,
Damien Personnaz, UNICEF Media, Geneva: +41 (0) 22 909 5515 




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