UN warns of outbreak as polio cases spike in Somalia


A young Somali refugee waits with her mother to be vaccinated at a pediatric vaccination centre at Hagadere refugee site within the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya's north-east province on August 1, 2011.


Tony Karumba

Over 100 cases of polio were reported in Somalia last year, almost half the world's total, a surge that has worried international health officials, according to BBC News

The West African nation had been overrun by Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab militants until a military offensive earlier this year, but many areas remain under their control — a fact that threatens to complicate relief efforts. 

And in a further blow, the medical aid charity Doctors Without Borders on Wednesday announced their departure from Somalia after over two decades, due to violence against staff members. The group was not directly involved in the polio vaccination drive there, according to the Associated Press, but still. The organization was the only health care provider for many in the country, said the BBC

A total of 105 people in Somalia contracted polio last year, most of them in al-Shabab-controlled areas, said the AP. Worldwide, 223 cases were recorded, a huge drop from the tens of thousands infected just decades ago, said the BBC, but a challenge for aid workers nonetheless.

"It's indeed worrying because this comes at a time when the country is still hugely affected by the raging fighting, which prevents volunteers from accessing people in need of vaccines," Mohamud Yasin, a retired doctor who has treated polio cases, told the AP on Friday, adding: "It may take time before we can confidently say we have universal coverage of the immunization."

Somalia's young United Nations-backed leadership is the nation's first internationally recognized government since the state collapsed in 1991. 

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also expressed concern about the spread of polio in Somalia, declaring Friday that the nation has "worst outbreak in the world in a non-endemic country," said Agence-France Press.

Somalia was declared free of the viral disease in 2001, and millions of people have been vaccinated.

However, polio is highly infectious and its comeback is threatens to get more deadly — particularly for the nation's young. The AP said in certain parts of the country, as many as seven out of 10 children have not been adequately immunized. The UN added that many children were showing signs of paralysis, a key indicator of the disease, according to AFP

"It's very worrying because it's an explosive outbreak and of course polio is a disease that is slated for eradication," said the World Health Organization's Oliver Rosenbauer of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in Geneva, reported the AP.

"In fact we're seeing more cases in this area [of Africa] this year than in the three endemic countries worldwide," he added, referring to Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. 

Another ten cases were also reported in Kenya, said the BBC. It is not yet clear where the outbreak started.