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Saving Children’s Lives in Somalia is Dangerous Work - 2002-04-10

Years of civil war have left the country of Somalia a failed, lawless state with feuding factions and massive poverty, a breeding ground, experts say, for terrorist groups. But Somalia also presents a threat of a different nature, one that international health organizations have been working to eliminate. VOA-TV’s Brian Padden reports from Somalia, where even saving lives is dangerous work.

Throughout the east African country of Somalia, a campaign is underway to vaccinate every child against polio, a debilitating and life threatening disease. This is part of a massive international effort to eradicate the disease from the Earth. Today, only 20 countries are left in the world where polio is still a significant problem. Here in war-torn Somalia, where there is no real working government or healthcare system, the World Health Organization and the United Nations had to build their own polio immunization network.

At the heart of this network are people like Mohammed Hussein. He hopes that the success of the polio campaign will demonstrate to the world that the vast majority of people in Somalia want and need international help.

“I think that if these people get some work and the international community helps them, they will become another society,” he said. “That is what they need. They need international help.”

Past humanitarian assistance in Somalia, relied upon U.N. peacekeepers to distribute food and enforce basic security. But these efforts ended in the 1990s soon after 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in a failed U.S. military operation.

By contrast, the polio immunization campaign has been organized by Somalis like Mr. Mohammed. By sponsoring community activities, such as local football matchs, hiring local militia gunmen to provide security and negotiating with local leaders, he has tried to ensure a safe and receptive environment for his vaccinators to do their work.

A Camp for Vaccinations in Mogadishu

“These people are living in bad sanitary conditions and as you can see there is not enough toilets and the garbage is everywhere,” Mr. Mohammed said at a camp in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

It is made up of people who have fled fighting elsewhere in the country and where outbreaks of infectious diseases are likely to occur. The immunizations proceed on schedule at the camp with the full support of the community elders.

“They have seen the children who became lame or became paralyzed. Now the community understands the problem of the polio, and now they are ready to immunize their children,” he said.

In another neighborhood, Mr. Mohammed and his team meet resistance from a young mother. “Ah, you see that this mother is refusing and she say that my children will not vaccinate. So we are trying to convince her,” he said. “There’s always some justifications that the mothers are having. They may say we don’t believe these vaccines. They may say that the father is not present. We always try our best to convince them. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we didn’t succeed.”

For the most part, the grassroots polio campaign has succeeded. In the year 2000, 42 new cases were diagnosed in Somalia. In 2001, that number was down to three. In most of the country progress has been slow but uneventful.

Random Violence Hinders Campaign

But in Mogadishu, even a humanitarian effort like the polio vaccination campaign can suddenly be thrown into chaos and danger by acts of random violence.

During a recent visit to the polio office in the Chengany district of the city, shots suddenly rang out, sending everyone running for cover. The people who fired upon us, I am told, are members of a rival militia. No one is sure why they are shooting. To escape, we fled through the city’s narrow alleyways.

On this day we were lucky. We eventually met up with our security guards and left the area unharmed. The next day, I later learned, a Somali polio worker was shot and killed while vaccinating children on the streets of Mogadishu.

Despite the recent violence, Mohammed Hussein and his colleagues decide to continue the polio immunization efforts in Somalia. “We have taken a risk to help our children and to be a part of the international community who are eradicating this disease from the world,” he said.

The danger, these polio workers say, is outweighed by the prospect of saving children’s lives and the possibility of more international help in the future.