Rotary supports Kenya's response to new polio threat

By Vukoni Lupa-Lasaga

Rotary International's role as a spearheading partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative often requires a rapid response to emergencies.

In October, for example, the government of Kenya reported a case of polio in a three-year-old girl, the first case of the disease in Kenya since 1984. To help address the risks of the poliovirus spreading across the country, Rotary Foundation Trustee Chair Luis Vicente Giay approved a US$350,000 rapid response grant.

The grant was announced on 17 October, a few days after the initiative confirmed news that the child, who lives with her parents at a refugee camp in Daadab, Garrisa, near the border of Somalia, had been diagnosed with polio. Rotary's contribution, channeled through the World Health Organization, will support emergency Subnational Immunization Days (SNIDs) targeting communities in northeastern Kenya.

According to Parmindar Lotay, a volunteer with the Kenya National PolioPlus Committee, Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have been worried since last year by news of imported polio transmissions in the East African region and the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

"We have fairly porous borders with some of these countries," he says. Consequently, even when Kenya became polio-free, local Rotarians were mindful of the risks of reinfection from neighboring countries.

"Working with UNICEF, we also managed to carry out NIDs in neighboring war-torn countries or countries with civil unrest and displaced populations," Lotay notes. "Since we have been able to keep polio at bay for over 20 years, we are committed to do whatever has to be done to not only keep this dreadful disease out of Kenya but to kick it out of Africa."

Lotay is hopeful that the single case of polio, which is genetically linked with the virus circulating in Somalia, might become the catalyst for more concerted action among all of the affected countries. Already, he says, there is a sense of urgency in the planning and implementation of immunization activities because of the polio infections in neighboring countries.

"The World Health Organization, Kenya Expanded Program on Immunization, and other partners including Rotary decided to carry out immunizations against polio and measles towards the end of last year," he explains. In August and September, health officials and volunteers in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia held coordinated SNIDs.

In the September immunization effort, close to 1 million children were targeted in Ethiopia, 240,000 in Kenya, and 1.7 million in Somalia. Scheduled SNIDs in early November will be coordinated among the contiguous border areas in the three countries.

The Horn of Africa Technical Advisory Group provides the framework for more efficient coordination among national health authorities and representatives of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners in the region.