Somalia launches emergency polio immunization campaign

Nairobi, Kenya - On 17 June, Somalia will launch a nationwide polio immunization campaign, to urgently protect the country's children from life-long paralysis caused by the disease. The campaign comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) Office for the Eastern Mediterranean issued a stark warning that Somalia could become re-infected with polio from nearby Ethiopia and Yemen, the latest two of 16 previously polio-free countries re-infected due to an ongoing outbreak in west and central Africa. Somalia has been polio-free since October 2002.

"The outbreaks of polio in Ethiopia and Yemen, coupled with large population movements between Somalia and its neighbours have put Somali children at risk of polio,'' said Dr David Heymann, Representative for Polio Eradication at WHO in Geneva, Switzerland. "The outbreaks in Ethiopia and Yemen have already paralyzed 230 children."

"It is crucial that all efforts are made to ensure that the poliovirus is not allowed to reverse the gains made so far in Somalia," agreed Dr Ibrahim Betelmal, WHO Representative for Somalia. In addition to Ethiopia and Yemen, Dr Betelmal highlighted the outbreak in Sudan, which over the past 12 months has left 152 children paralysed, as further evidence at the speed with which the disease can re-infect a country. "It is crucial to prevent this happening in Somalia," he explained.

The campaign is launched as an emergency preventive measure, and aims to rapidly boost children's immunity to polio. Health officials stressed the importance of ensuring every child is vaccinated during the activity, particularly as only an estimated one-quarter of all children are routinely immunized against polio in Somalia.

Supported by WHO and UNICEF, tens of thousands of volunteers, health workers, parents, as well as community, religious and traditional leaders will systematically go house-to-house and village-to-village across the country, to hand-deliver polio vaccine to every child under the age of five years. The activity will be held on 17-19 June in Puntland, on 18 -20 June in Somaliland, and from 24-26 June in the south and central areas of the country. To further maximise the immunological impact of the campaign, the recently-developed 'monovalent oral polio vaccine type 1' (mOPV1) will be used. This novel vaccine will more rapidly boost immunity among children, as it works faster than the commonly-used 'trivalent oral polio vaccine.'

The immunization campaign follows similar activities already conducted in February and April. Organizers of the campaign have urged all parents, community, traditional and religious leaders to participate in the immunization activity, to ensure all children of Somalia can benefit from the protection offered by the polio vaccine, regardless of previous immunization status. Further polio immunization campaigns will be held in July, August and September, to ensure all children receive sufficient doses of the polio vaccine to be adequately protected from the disease.

Meanwhile, UNICEF Somalia Representative, Jesper Morch appealed for more support for the polio eradication effort. "Because of the risk of the re-infection of Somalia and other polio-free countries, it is more urgent than ever to fill a US$50 million global funding gap by July." Of this figure, nearly US$2 million is needed for Somalia - to enable continued immunization activities in the second half of the year. An additional US$200 million is required for 2006 activities. "Failure to urgently meet these funding needs will compromise immunization activities and threaten the polio eradication effort, not only in Somalia but worldwide." said Mr Morch.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by the WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF. Since 1988, the incidence of the disease has been reduced by 99 percent, from 350,000 cases per year to 456 cases in 2005. In 2005, the number of reported polio cases by country are (as at 7 June): Yemen (220 cases), Nigeria (144 cases), Sudan (25 cases), Indonesia (28 cases), India (18 cases), Ethiopia (10 cases), Pakistan (7 cases), Niger (1 case), Afghanistan (2 cases) and Cameroon (1 case).

Editors' note:

The 16 previously polio-free countries suffering importations of poliovirus as a result of the 2003-2005 outbreak in west and central Africa are: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Indonesia, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Togo and Yemen.

For further information contact:

1. Athalia Christie, Technical Officer Polio, WHO Horn of Africa Office: 254-20-622311, Mobile: 254-722-513085. Fax: 254-20-623200

2. John Lebga, EPI-Polio Officer, UNICEF Somalia. Tel: +254-20-623950/521218/521396 Mobile: +254-733-944208/724-255654. Fax: +254-623965/520640.