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Somalia Declared Polio Free, Despite Violence and Displacement

There’s good news about Somalia. Despite the ongoing violence and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, the country has been declared polio free.

The World Health Organization Tuesday called it a “historic achievement,” saying there hasn’t been a case of polio in Somalia in a year. However, it says Nigeria still has not rid itself of the disease.

Oliver Rosenbauer is with the WHO’s polio eradication group. From Geneva, he spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the success.

“Somalia is again polio free and this, for the worldwide effort to eradicate polio, really is a key milestone for us. As you might know, the global fight to eradicate polio is about twenty years old now. Twenty years ago there were more than a million children paralyzed each and every year in more than 125 endemic countries. Since then, together with our partners at Rotary International, CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and UNICEF, we’ve managed to reduce this incidence of polio by more than 99 percent. There’s only a handful of countries which are still polio endemic and the fact that Somalia again stopped this disease really is a key success for us,” he says.

Asked how this was accomplished considering conflict and mass displacement, Rosenbauer says, “It was a real challenge to rid the country of polio…. So some specific strategies were set up. For one, we worked very much with local community leaders to make sure we got everybody’s full engagement during polio immunization campaigns. We mapped very specifically nomadic routes. We established where key nomadic settlements or gathering sites were and we set up vaccination posts there. And all these things helped. But ultimately the credit has to go to more than 10,000 Somali health workers and volunteers. And they literally went from village to village and from house to house in every city in Somalia to hand deliver the polio vaccine to every single Somali child,” he says.

Rosenbauer says that if polio can be eradicated in a dangerous place like Somalia it can be eradicated anywhere in the world. Ongoing immunization campaigns are planned to keep the country polio free.

“They had already once before eradicated polio in 2002, but then became re-infected, unfortunately, in the middle of 2005…. And that risk of re-infection will always remain until you finish the disease in the endemic areas -- what we call the endemic countries, in other words, where the virus lives,” he says. There are four remaining countries: Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In fact, it was a strain of polio virus from Nigeria that was responsible for the reemergence of polio in Somalia in 2005.