Two United Nations agencies vowed on Wednesday to step up efforts to contain polio outbreaks in Somalia.
In a joint statement issued to mark the World Polio Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) said efforts are underway to stop two concurrent outbreaks of vaccine-derived polioviruses that were confirmed late in 2017 in Somalia.
“The likelihood that the current outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses can survive in areas where there is low immunization uptake and lack of sanitation is high,” said the UN agencies.
The agencies, including health partners, called for unhindered and safe access so that all eligible children in Somalia get vaccinated.
WHO Somalia Representative Ghulam Popal said health partners face a persistent lack of access to children due to insecurity, population displacement driven by conflict and natural disasters, and a struggling health system, all of which have contributed to low immunization rates in children.
“This has seen the emergence of polioviruses that are highly contagious and spread through poor hygiene. But a simple series of doses of the polio vaccine will protect a child for life,” Popal said.
Polio was detected in Somalia in May 2013, for the first time in six years, after the parents of a two-year-old girl in Mogadishu found she was unable to walk.
The virus, which can cause paralysis or even death, spread quickly, affecting 194 people in 2013.
By 2014, the number was contained to just five cases, one of them an adult who died, all in the remote Mudug region of Puntland, in northeastern Somalia.
The Horn of Africa nation is also responding to an outbreak of acute watery diarrhoea/cholera, which began in January 2017. Polio systems and networks are being used in both interventions, according to the UN.
Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF representative in Somalia, said frontline workers are on a daily basis identifying children who need to be vaccinated, often in highly volatile areas.
“They are knocking on doors in communities and visiting camps for the internally displaced to educate families on the benefits of polio immunization and to deliver vaccinations. These are the unsung heroes in the fight against polio,” said Lauwerier.
The two UN agencies will conduct countrywide immunization campaign from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 to ensure children most vulnerable to missing vaccination are included.
During the last immunization campaign held nationwide earlier this month, over 2.6 million children were vaccinated, said the agencies.