Polio outbreak in Somalia officially over

Fourteen months since the most recent case of wild poliovirus in Somalia and the entire African continent, the polio outbreak in Somalia has been officially declared over.

Committed health workers and volunteers have gone to great lengths across Somalia to reach even the most remote children with polio vaccines.
Committed health workers and volunteers have gone to great lengths across Somalia to reach even the most remote children with polio vaccines. WHO

The 2013-2014 polio outbreak in Somalia, which affected nearly 200 people, most of them children, has officially been declared over, 14 months after the last polio case was identified.

Experts say this remarkable achievement is the result of the enormous efforts and commitment shown by governments, health workers, and parents to ensure that their children receive the vaccine.

The outbreak that was confirmed in May 2013 when the first case presented in a two-year-old girl from Mogadishu, quickly spread, affecting 194 people by the end of 2013. The rapid, coordinated response to the outbreak helped slow the spread of polio, with only five new cases reported in 2014. The last case was reported in Hobyo district, Mudug on 11 August 2014.

More than 2.1 million children under the age of five were targeted in multiple mass immunization campaigns run by the Somali health authorities, with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) and the partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Due to the nature of the outbreak, in some areas children aged from five to 10 and adults were also vaccinated to ensure circulation of poliovirus was stopped.

Child and health experts from WHO and UNICEF, together with Somali nationals, worked under extremely challenging security conditions to ensure effective planning, implementation, and monitoring of 35 vaccination campaigns. Sadly, two international UNICEF polio staff were among those lost their lives in a suicide bomb attack in Garowe, Puntland on 20 April this year.

The official announcement that the outbreak was over was made after an Outbreak Assessment Team (comprised of experts from WHO, UNICEF, the Centres for Disease Control, CORE group and Rotary) conducted an in-depth review of the polio outbreak response in Somalia in October 2015.

“The Somali authorities have placed polio outbreak response as one of their national priorities and they exerted tremendous effort to ensure children are vaccinated,” said the Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Peter de Clercq. “This achievement is a great credit to them and to the brave and committed vaccinators and volunteers who put their lives at risk to save lives of others in need. The entire United Nations family in Somalia delivered as one in support of polio outbreak control activities. The UN agencies will continue to provide support in whatever way we can.”

In Somalia, only around a third of children are routinely vaccinated, with parents often unaware of the importance of vaccination or not having the time, means or transport to take their children to be vaccinated. Social mobilisers use house to house visits to inform the local community about upcoming campaigns and the importance of vaccination, the fact that it is safe and effective and that children should be vaccinated several times to ensure they are protected for life and adults too can carry the virus.

“The immediate and effective response to the outbreak of this terrible virus was instrumental in bringing it under control and putting a stop to it,” said UNICEF Somalia’s acting Representative Foroogh Foyouzat. ”We are continuing our vaccination campaigns and our goal is to ensure that every single Somali child is protected against this preventable but incurable virus.”

“The tireless efforts of national authorities and their partners in stopping the outbreak is commendable. Our deepest tributes and appreciations go to the field staff who delivered the results in spite of huge challenges in Somalia,” said Dr. Ghulam Popal, WHO Somalia Representative. “Despite this positive news, we cannot be complacent. We must continue to ensure that as many children as possible are vaccinated across the country in the coming months; ensure further strengthening of Polio surveillance system so that polio cannot continue to be transmitted undetected; and to enhance the routine immunization system and coverage.”

Given the security situation in Somalia, frequent population movements across the region, low immunity in key areas and the continuing transmission of polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the risk of another importation of the virus remains high and the consequences severe. Until the risk is reduced, Somalia will continue to implement, at a reduced frequency, mass vaccination campaigns to protect children from polio.

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