afrol News, 27 March - Polio, which until recently was eradicated from Somalia, is spreading from Mogadishu to the Somali countryside. While an immunisation campaign has managed to stop the spread in the Somali capital, vaccination in rural areas is only starting now. The international humanitarian workers assisting Somali health personnel in the campaign however fear renewed fighting in the law-less country may hinder the planned mass vaccination.
According to the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) and Children's Fund (UNICEF), "polio appears to be on the decline in Mogadishu, formerly the epicentre of the outbreak. However the virus has spread to two new regions in Lower Shabelle, southern Somalia and Mudug region, north-eastern Somalia." Both these areas were previously unaffected by the current polio outbreak in the country.
In 2005, 82 percent of the polio cases recorded in Somalia were from Mogadishu. Following repeated vaccination campaigns there, only three of the 14 cases reported in 2006 are in the city. "The progress made against the poliovirus in the capital, with its difficult security environment, indicates that polio outbreak response strategies are starting to take effect," WHO reports.
Both new cases - coming from regions with security-related restrictions - were said present a risk to neighbouring countries such as polio-free Kenya and threaten the progress made in Mogadishu. The polio outbreak in Somalia, which occurred in July 2005 with an importation of poliovirus from Sudan, has affected a total of 199 children to date, according to WHO.
Public health officials remain optimistic, however, aware that Somalia has previously stopped polio, even against the backdrop of political instability that has plagued the country. With repeated vaccination campaigns that delivered oral polio vaccine to all children under the age of five, overcoming serious security challenges, Somalia recorded its last case of indigenous polio in 2002, after which WHO declared the disease as eradicated in the country.
"Somalia has been polio-free before," reminded WHO representative for Somalia, Dr Ibrahim Betelmal. "With safe access for our vaccinators and the support of the community, Somalia can stop polio again." The global polio eradication strategies of mass and repeated vaccination campaigns have reduced worldwide incidence of the disease by 99 percent, across a wide variety of political, financial and cultural contexts.
WHO, UNICEF and a long list of international partners therefore yesterday launched a new vaccination campaign that is to reach children all over Somalia, also in rural areas and regions of conflict. The campaign targets 1.4 Somali children, most of them born after the country had been declared free from the paralysing scourge.
Tens of thousands of volunteers are already working in the campaign against the disease, but UNICEF yesterday stressed the urgency of millions of dollars in new funding. "To carry out these additional campaigns, we will need an additional US$ 11 million in Somalia alone," UNICEF representative Christian Baslev-Olesen said, noting that additional global immunisation needs have stretched the resources of the 18-year-old US$ 4 billion effort to eradicate polio worldwide.
The two UN agencies are relatively optimistic about their possibilities to carry out the mass immunisation campaign, despite the recent increase in fighting in the country. Somalia has been riven by factional fighting and has lacked a functioning central government ever since the collapse of President Muhammad Siad Barre's regime 15 years ago.
Continual fighting, banditry and piracy off Somalia's shores have seriously hampered UN humanitarian activities, including the provision of sorely needed food for tens of thousands of hungry Somalis. Only last week, a deadly fire-fight between two militias forced the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) to withdraw from a distribution centre in southern Somalia and suspend aid there for victims of a severe drought.
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