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 those 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 al-Shabab controlled south-central Somalia, disease surveillance is functioning, but health officials are likely not able to detect all polio cases.
Mohamud Yasin, a retired doctor who has treated polio throughout his career, said: “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. It may take time before we can confidently say we have universal coverage of the immunization.”
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.
The World Health Organization knows the Somalia outbreak came from West Africa but can’t say exactly where. In 2011, the virus jumped from Pakistan to China, and the year before that to Tajikistan. There have been more than 50 outbreaks in the last decade.
Poliovirus is very contagious. The virus lives in an infected person’s throat and intestines. It spreads through contact with the feces of an infected person and through droplets from a sneeze or cough.