NAIROBI, Kenya – Somalia is suffering an “explosive” outbreak of polio and now has more cases than the rest of the world combined, an official said Friday.
Vaccine-wielding health workers face a daunting challenge: accessing areas of Somalia controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants, where 7 of 10 children aren’t fully immunized.
Polio is mostly considered eliminated globally except mainly in three countries where it is considered endemic: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. India marked a major success in February 2012 by being removed from the World Health Organization’s list of countries plagued by the disease.
Somalia now has 105 cases, figures released Friday show, and another 10 cases have been confirmed across the border in a Kenyan refugee camp filled with Somalis. Globally, there have been 181 cases of polio this year, including those in Somalia and Kenya.
Vaccination campaigns in Somalia have reached 4 million people since the outbreak began in May, but health officials have limited access to about 600,000 children who live in areas of Somalia controlled by the armed Islamist group al-Shabab.
“It’s very worrying because it’s an explosive outbreak and of course polio is a disease that is slated for eradication,” said Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the World Health Organization in Geneva. “In fact, we’re seeing more cases in this area this year than in the three endemic countries worldwide.”
In a bit of good news, Rosenbauer said polio numbers are down in the three remaining endemic countries.
“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,” he said.
Somalia was removed from the list of endemic polio countries in 2001, and this year’s outbreak is the second since then.
It began one month after Bill Gates helped unveil a six-year plan to eradicate polio at the Global Vaccine Summit. That effort will cost $5.5 billion, three-quarters of which has already been pledged, including $1.8 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The outbreak in Somalia does not set back the six-year plan, said Rosenbauer, because unpredictable and intermittent outbreaks were programmed into the timeline.
In a sign of how difficult it is for medical providers to operate in Somalia, the aid group Doctors Without Borders announced this week it was pulling out of the country after 22 years because of attacks on its staff members. MSF, as the group is also known, was not taking part in the polio vaccination campaign.