The World Health Organization is launching a five-day nationwide polio immunization campaign in Somalia Sunday. WHO says it will try to vaccinate nearly one-and-one half million children under age five against this crippling disease.
Somalia had been polio-free since 2003. The disease re-emerged in the country last July due to an importation of the virus from Yemen. Since then, nearly 200 children have become paralyzed.
The Head of WHO's Global Polio Eradication Campaign, David Heymann, says four in five cases last year were recorded in the capital, Mogadishu, but the disease is being contained following repeated vaccination campaigns there.
"In fact, we are seeing that the number of cases of polio are now beginning to decrease," Dr. Heymann says. "And, we even feel that in the North of the country which is a very difficult part of the country logistically, it may be that polio has again disappeared because there has not been a case seen since early December of last year."
But, Dr. Heymann, says the problem continues to be critical. He notes polio now has been reported in eight of Somalia's 19 regions.
In the past two years, 22 formerly polio-free countries were re-infected with the disease. Most of them from a wild virus that originated in Nigeria. The problem arose after Nigeria's northern state of Kano suspended immunizations in 2003, claiming the polio vaccine was contaminated and caused sterility and HIV/AIDS.
Nigeria's northern Islamic States resumed vaccinations after a 10-month ban. Dr. Heymann says thanks to mass synchronized immunization campaigns, polio has been stopped in all countries in West and Central Africa, with the exception of Nigeria.
He acknowledges that the conflict in Somalia poses a problem. But, he says there is strong support for the campaign and polio is not being held hostage to the civil disturbances.
"Children will be reached by any means necessary, whether it is a boat, whether it is riding camel-whatever the volunteers need to do and the vaccinators need to do to get to those children will be done," Dr. Heymann says. "So, we are very optimistic that using local ingenuity, they will be able to reach the children as they have in the past.
The World Health Organization launched a global campaign in 1988 to eradicate polio by the end of 2005. That deadline has been missed. But, Dr. Heymann says he is optimistic that polio will be stopped by the end of the year. Only Nigeria will remain a problem. He says so many children were paralyzed by polio in Nigeria, it will take an additional six months to rid that country of this crippling disease.