Public Health


The global effort to rid the world of polio has suffered a setback. Somalia is reporting an outbreak for the first time in more than six years. Last year, polio appeared to be on the verge of defeat. Only a few dozen cases occurred around the globe. The new cases in Somalia could be the first signals of an explosive outbreak in the Horn of Africa. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Over the last two months, there have been 25 confirmed cases of polio in Somalia. The outbreak is centered around Mogadishu, but there have also been several cases in rural areas to the west of the capital. And significantly, across the border in Kenya, six more children have been paralyzed at a refugee camp.

Sona Bari with the World Health Organization's polio eradication team in Geneva says the recently detected cases are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

SONA BARI: The last time we saw an outbreak in this part of the world, it involved Yemen, it involved the - most of the countries in the Horn of Africa, and led to about 700 cases.

BEAUBIEN: Last year, there were only 223 polio cases worldwide, the lowest number ever recorded. This year looked like it was on track to be even better. But then the virus popped back up in Somalia.

In response to the outbreak, local health officials in Somalia have launched three massive polio vaccination drives, and Kenya has carried out two emergency immunization campaigns in the affected refugee camp.

Bari at the WHO says when outbreaks like these occur, the goal is to break the polio virus' transmission cycle by getting more than 90 percent of the local population vaccinated.

BARI: The virus is looking for children in which it can circulate. The virus can't live out in the sewage or out in the environment on its own. So it needs human beings and it looks for human beings who are not immune, who are going to allow it to continue transmitting.

BEAUBIEN: But carrying out mass emergency polio vaccination campaigns is difficult in Somalia. There are parts of the country where there is no functioning government. And it's a difficult place for international relief agencies to work.

Just last week, militants from the al-Qaida-linked group al-Shabab attacked the United Nations headquarters in Mogadishu. The 90-minute gun battle left a gaping hole in the U.N. compound and 22 people dead. The great fear among health officials is that the chaos in Somalia could allow polio to regain its footing throughout the region and even jump across to the Middle East. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.



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