Efforts to stop the spread of polio in the Horn of Africa region are being ramped up with major immunization campaigns underway, targeting millions of vulnerable children.
There have been outbreaks in Kenya and Ethiopia, and more seriously neighbouring Somalia, with 183 cases confirmed this year up to October, according to a snapshot by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
This is the first outbreak in Somalia since 2007. In response, 3.4 million children under the age of 10 were targeted for vaccination between 20 and 26 October. “Further immunization campaigns are planned for November and December,” the snapshot said.
If the polio outbreak in Somalia is not controlled quickly, global efforts to wipe out the disease once and for all could be jeopardized, warned the UN Children’s Fund.
So far this year (up to 13 November), some 334 polio cases have been recorded globally, compared to 187 over the same period in 2012, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). In 2012, a total of 223 cases were recorded worldwide.
In South Sudan, vaccination campaigns targeting those younger than 15 were carried out from 22-24 October, according to GPEI.
“Since polio outbreaks were confirmed in Somalia and other neighbouring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia, health authorities in South Sudan have been on high alert for any possible cases in the country,” said OCHA in a humanitarian bulletin. “South Sudan has been polio-free since June 2009.”
Immunizations campaigns are also planned in Ethiopia and Sudan.
Concern over South Kordofan, Blue Nile
A lack of humanitarian access is, however, hindering the exercise in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. In October, the UN Security Council expressed concern about the imminent threat of the spread of polio in South Kordofan and urged the government of Sudan and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) to resolve their differences to enable a two-week polio vaccination campaign to take place in November.
“We are, on the UN side ready, if we get the green light,” OCHA’s director of the operation division, John Ging, told a press conference on 11 November.
“Sadly, and typically, since the Council passed its resolution calling for unfettered humanitarian access, once again we don’t have any access at all,” Ging said.
“We found 18 months ago when they passed the resolution that it did create momentum, but unfortunately we have been filibustered with process, discussions and disputes which have amounted to no access to humanitarian agencies.”
Security fears on Kenya-Somalia border
In Kenya, where 14 polio cases have been recorded, lapses in security along the border with Somalia are said to be partly to blame for the disease’s spread.
“As long as increasing numbers of criminal gangs like Al-Shabab are still a threat, the war against polio will not be won,” said Ian Njeru, head of the division of disease surveillance and response in the Health Ministry.
“Whenever there is [a] security lapse, health workers do not go to the villages for fear of attacks. This subsequently hinders reaching a huge chunk of children during [the] routine immunization exercise.”
Njeru urged the Kenyan government to enhance border surveillance, noting that Somali asylum seekers, crossing into the country via unofficial crossing points, complicate efforts to fight polio.
Of the 14 cases, 10 have been reported in the Dadaab refugee complex, which hosts close to 400,000 mainly Somali refugees in eastern Kenya.
Njeru urged parents to take their children to hospitals for routine vaccination. “We are also planning for more intensive outreaches targeting pastoralist communities to ensure that we vaccinate them wherever they move to in search of pasture.”
Kenya’s Health Ministry plans to immunize some eight million children under the age of five in 2013 and has already reached 5.5 million in five previous campaigns. The next vaccination exercise will run from 16-20 November.