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Toddler in northern Somalia is paralysed by polio – one of four new cases this year

By Athanas Makundi

GALKAYO, Somalia – 16 July 2014 –Two and half year old Asha Mohamed sits in her mother’s lap, playfully hiding her face behind her hands. She used to follow her mother, Anod Abdi Hassan, all round the house until she contracted polio earlier this year. Now her legs are paralysed. Her mother softly massages them in the hope that they will be strong again – but she has been told there is no cure.

“One night Asha developed a high fever and became seriously ill, the community health worker advised us to bring her to a hospital here in Galkayo town,’ she explained. “But there was no change and her legs are paralyzed. She cannot walk, I have to carry her all the time. “

The family, who are pastoralists, live in Towfiq village, a remote area of Jariban District in Puntland, northern Somalia. Asha was never vaccinated against polio or any other disease, and two of her elder siblings died of unspecified illnesses before they were five.

“I didn’t know anything about polio or immunization, “says Anod. “ We don’t get information about such things, because where we live there are no roads, and we are always on the move.”

Asha’s story is all too common. Before the current outbreak it was believed that half a million children had not been vaccinated against polio in Somalia for several reasons including lack of access, ignorance and insecurity. Asha was the first reported case of polio in 2014 but since then three more have been reported in the same district of Jariban in Puntland. The newest cases are eight and nine year old boys and a 29 year old man – none of whom had been vaccinated.

“The risk is now higher than before,” says Sarah Hassan Jama, the head of the central Maternal and Child Health Clinic in Galkayo town. “Before we used to talk of polio in other places of the country but now the problem is right here.”

Polio has no cure and is highly contagious. It spread quickly through water or food contaminated with faeces from an infected person. UNICEF and partners are working to scale up polio vaccinations in remote areas and to raise awareness by urging local leaders and religious leaders to speak out and encourage all Somali families to protect their children from polio by taking the vaccine.

“Our Islamic faith calls for the prevention of diseases before they infect people, “ says Sheikh Nur Abdala a local cleric in Galkayo town. “We know polio is a bad disease and is paralyzing our children, vaccination can prevent the diseases and we should leave prevention to the experts, whether they are Muslim or from another religion.”

Since Somalia’s first case of polio in seven years was identified in Mogadishu in May 2013, nearly 200 people nearly all children have been affected. Despite regular nationwide house-to-house polio vaccination campaigns in Somalia, the virus persists.

UNICEF and the World Health Organization are working with partners, with funding from donors, to continue regular polio campaigns. There is hope that, once again, polio can be eradicated from Somalia – but the only way to ensure this is to vaccinate every child.



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