Less than 24 hours ago, the AP reported that a polio epidemic of “explosive” proportions had struck Somalia. The African country famed for its piracy and tribal conflicts may now claim it has more polio cases than the rest of the world’s countries combined.
Although most countries in the world consider polio eliminated, it is considered endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and until very recently, India. Figures released on Friday illustrate over 100 cases with an extra 10 popping up in a Kenyan refugee camp. The outbreak initially started this past May, and campaigns to vaccinate the Somali people have reached about 4 million. Somalia was removed from the endemic list in 2001.
Areas of the country are still heavily controlled by the al Shabaab child militia network, and health workers are having trouble reaching children in those areas, 7 out of 10 of whom are not properly immunized against polio.
Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the WHO in Geneva, said that “It’s very worrying because it’s an explosive outbreak and of course polio is a disease that is slated for eradication… In fact we’re seeing more cases in this area this year than in the three endemic countries worldwide.”
Polio is one of computer magnate Bill Gates’ pet issues, and through his foundation he personally devotes millions of dollars to the effort. Rosenbauer is optimistic that the polio outbreak will not affect continued efforts to eliminate the disease.
“The only way to get rid of this risk is to eradicate in the endemic countries, and there the news is actually paradoxically very good,” Rosenbauer said in a phone interview with the AP on the subject of eliminating polio in endemic nations.
The AFP notes that the outbreak could not have come at a more inconvenient time for Somalia. Apart from the al-Qaeda associated al Shabaab Islamists, rival warlords and the Somali national army are all clashing for control of the country.
A clear indicator as to the problems facing doctors who operate in Somalia was the notice that Doctors Without Borders is pulling out of Somalia after 22 years of lending aid. The nonprofit cited attacks on its staff members, although the organization was not participating in the polio campaigns.