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Polio Eradication Suffers A Setback As Somali Outbreak Worsens

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Polio Eradication Suffers A Setback As Somali Outbreak Worsens

Chasing Down Polio

Polio Eradication Suffers A Setback As Somali Outbreak Worsens

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A polio outbreak in Somalia is getting worse. The east African nation was declared polio-free in 2007, but the virus has come back. Somalia currently has the worse polio outbreak anywhere in the world.

NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien is following the story and he joins me now. And, Jason, tell us more about this current outbreak. Where is it centered?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It's centered around Mogadishu at the moment. But what's somewhat significant is that eight cases have turned up across the border in Kenya, in a refugee camp. So it's clear that it's not just sitting still there in Mogadishu, and it is being found outside of Mogadishu and in a broader and broader sort of radius by the week. So that's why there's great concern about this. It clearly is spreading and the fear amongst health officials is that it's going to get worse before it gets better.

BLOCK: Well, we've been reporting over the last few months about a multi-billion dollar effort that's under way to try to eradicate polio. How much of a setback is the outbreak we're talking about in Somalia?

BEAUBIEN: This is significant because up until now, it appeared that we were just dealing with Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the numbers were really quite low. Last year, it was just 223 cases in the entire world. And this year in Afghanistan, they're down to just three cases so far this year. So it really looked like things were going extremely well. And so now to have 73 cases pop up in the Horn of Africa is a really big deal, and that's more than you're getting in any of those other countries combined this year.

So it's a significant outbreak and it's a significant setback. And partly it's a setback because this means that those resources that were getting poured into Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to try to just wipe out the virus, now they need to get focused in Somalia and in the areas all around Somalia. You need to be boosting immunization in Uganda, throughout Kenya, probably in Yemen, in Ethiopia. So it means that human resources and financial resources are going to get diverted from what looked like the last few cases on Earth, to now this part of east Africa.

BLOCK: And what are health experts telling you about what is being done, or what can be done, to try to fight the new polio outbreak in Somalia?

BEAUBIEN: So since this first turned up in May, they've done five emergency immunization campaigns around Mogadishu and throughout that sort of zone of Somalia. And basically they go in and just to immunize all of the children. Even children who've been immunized before, they do these boosters to give them even some more immunity.

The problem however in Somalia is that it's got the second worst rate of immunization for polio in the world. And you've got a million kids in that general area - sort of spread between the Kenyan border and Mogadishu -who have never been vaccinated for polio. So there is this huge pool of children who potentially could get it. And if they get it, then the virus replicates inside them, they can spread even further.

So there's an effort being run by the Somali government to go out and get these mass immunization campaigns done. The problem, however, is that there are parts of Somalia which the Somali government doesn't control, and they can't get in there and do these vaccinations.

BLOCK: We've also heard, Jason, in other countries about widespread resistance to immunization campaigns; fears about what the vaccines might do and what they might contain. Is that the same situation in Somalia?

BEAUBIEN: It isn't as much of a problem in Somalia as it has been in some of the other countries. However, right at the moment, it's Ramadan and that was a bit of an issue at first because some of the campaigns were stopped because things were not supposed to be passing people's lips during the daylight when they wanted to do a vaccinations. And so, they had to go out into some negotiating with some of the religious leaders and actually managed to get sort of an exception, so that some of these campaigns could happen during Ramadan.

In that sense, things are going better in Somalia than they are in some other parts of the world.

BLOCK: That's NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien, talking with us from Johannesburg. We were talking about the outbreak of polio in Somalia.

Jason, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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