Vaccination Campaigns Emerge as Priority in Famine Stricken Somalia
August 17, 2011
Web and Social Media Assistant, Global Health Policy Center
I recently learned that in the Horn of Africa, and particularly in Somalia, polio officials are waging mass vaccination campaigns targeted at hundreds of thousands of women and children. With most health-related news coverage on Somalia being linked to famine, cholera, and measles, I was surprised to discover that polio – a disease eradicated from Somalia in 2008 – is even a priority among health officials on the ground.
However in talking with Tim Petersen, Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I learned that even though polio has been eradicated from the country, episodes of mass human migration – such as the one currently occurring as people flee the region’s famine – create vulnerability in any population. This is why it is especially important to be vigilant now. It is much cheaper to prevent a public health emergency than it is treat one once it occurs. Indeed Somalia initially eradicated polio in 2002, but became re-infected in 2005 when a strain of the virus originating in Nigeria entered the country. It took three years, 10,000 Somali volunteers, and repeated vaccinations of 1.8 million children to again rid the nation of the disease.
Historically the polio team has been the first on the ground to respond to humanitarian issues and disease outbreaks and is pre-equipped with the necessary tools to respond to a crisis, including transportation, infrastructure, and a strong communications network. Somalia’s polio program is well established and deeply embedded in the country’s disease surveillance system and the team’s assets can be used to provide a range of vaccination and medical response services. Melissa Corkum, Polio Communication Officer for UNICEF in Somalia, explained that the recent vaccination campaign UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Kenya’s Ministry of Health conducted in the communities around the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya, targeted 202,665 children for not only polio vaccine but also measles, tetanus, Vitamin A, and de-worming tablets.
With so much media attention focused on Al-Shabab blocking food and foreign aid organizations from entering the country, I was surprised that mass vaccinations targeting thousands of people can proceed undisturbed and be widely accepted in most communities. According to WHO’s Medical Officer in Somalia, Dr. Abraham Mulugeta Debesay, the national polio staff in Somalia are locally recruited and embedded at the community level. Each district has at least one dedicated polio employee, if not more depending on its size and clan distribution. Because of this, the polio staff are accepted and allowed to operate while Al-Shabab forces other UN and NGO staff to leave. However, Dr. Debesay noted that while polio officials have been more successful in continuing to provide services because of the clan trust they’ve established, Al-Shabab does not tolerate vaccination efforts well and can make the work of polio officials difficult.
While challenges still remain and thousands more still need to be vaccinated, it is impressive to hear about the work of polio officials in Somalia. Even though polio has been officially eradicated from the country, the team’s vigilance and dedication have not only prevented polio from reemerging, but have also prevented countless other infectious diseases and been a serious help to aid efforts on the ground.
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