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Kenyan Officials Concerned Over Polio, Bird Flu Scares


Worried health officials in Kenya are trying to determine whether the country's first reported case of polio in decades has its origins in Kenya or in neighboring Somalia. Officials there are also on high alert, following a recent outbreak of bird flu, near Kenya's northern border.

The Director of Medical Services for Kenya's Ministry of Health, Dr. James Nyikal, tells VOA that a Kenyan medical team, together with experts from the World Health Organization and the U.N. Childrens' Fund, are taking samples from children in the northeastern Garissa district to establish the origins of the polio virus.

That is where health officials discovered a three-year-old Somali girl in a refugee camp, who began to show symptoms of the disease on Sept. 17. She has since been isolated.

Dr. Nyikal says there is fear that the polio virus may have been carried into the camp in Garissa by a recent influx of Somalis, fleeing instability in their country. Somalia became re-infected in 2005 after being polio-free for three years.

"We are strengthening surveillance in the whole district and particularly the border points where people are coming in," said Dr. Nyikal. "We have been giving all children coming in both measles and polio vaccinations. So, we are continuing this, but we will heighten surveillance."

The girl had reportedly been vaccinated against the disease in recent weeks. But Dr. Nyikal says that it is common for a child to remain vulnerable to infection until the immunization regimen is complete.

If it is determined that the polio strain is homegrown, Kenyan health officials say they are prepared to carry out immediate country-wide vaccinations of all children under the age of five, who have never been vaccinated against polio.

Polio is spread when unvaccinated people, mostly children, come into contact with the feces of those with the virus, often through water. The virus can cause paralysis, muscular atrophy, and sometimes death.

Kenya is the 26th country to have become re-infected with polio since 2003. Three years ago, Nigeria's predominantly Muslim northern states stopped polio vaccinations for a year, after rumors that the inoculations were part of a U.S.-led plot to sterilize Muslim girls. India has also been criticized for failing to immunize every child and contributing to the re-emergence of the disease.

Meanwhile, Kenyan health officials and veterinarians have been dispatched to northern Turkana district to monitor the possible spread of avian or bird flu.

Officials say they are looking for symptoms of the disease, which includes high fever, among people crossing into Kenya from southern Sudan, where an outbreak has been reported.

Last Monday, the Kenyan government banned all poultry products from southern Sudan after the World Health Organization reported that four birds had died of the disease in the town of Juba.

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