Sabahi (Washington, DC)

4 September 2013

Somalia: Polio Widespread in Regions Under Al-Shabaab Control

Mogadishu — Al-Shabaab's refusal to allow the supply of the polio vaccine in areas under its control is causing panic among residents at a time when aid workers are struggling to contain an outbreak of the crippling virus.

"The polio outbreak plaguing Somalia has spread despite significant efforts to curb the disease," the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement August 15th, adding that insecurity is hampering efforts to contain the virus.

Six years after Somalia was declared free of the virus, at least 105 cases have been confirmed in the country, the "worst outbreak in the world in a non-endemic country", according to OCHA.

Liban Nur, a 65-year-old traditional elder in the town of Bulo Burde in Hiran region, told Sabahi he was very concerned about the spread of polio since al-Shabaab will not allow the vaccine to be brought to the town.

"Polio is widespread in the region, and this year alone I have seen more than four children who have been afflicted with polio and have not received any medical attention or the vaccine to prevent polio," he said.

"Recently people have been treating themselves with traditional medicine such as herbs that grow [in Bulo Burde] that they boil and then give the extracted fluid to the children with polio," he said. "This medicine does not cure anything."

Nur said it is difficult for families to travel to areas under government control where the vaccine is available because many are hampered by economic constraints.

The Somali government led a polio immunisation campaign in May and June aimed at vaccinating more than one million children aged 10 and under. In an attempt to derail the campaign, al-Shabaab launched a propaganda campaign in areas it controls, spreading falsehoods about the vaccine to scare-off parents.

"This vaccine contains toxic things that could make children sterile," the militants said through loudspeakers atop circulating vehicles in Bulo Burde, Buale and Baardheere. "This vaccine contains the virus that causes AIDS. Keep your children safe!"

But Nur said al-Shabaab's scare tactics went largely unheeded.

"We are in great need of the vaccine because many of the doubts we harboured about the vaccine causing HIV/AIDS were dispelled when we saw the nation's president being vaccinated ," Nur said.

Polio cannot be eradicated without first eliminating al-Shabaab from Bulo Burde and anywhere else under the group's control, he said.

Crippled children

Hawa Dirie, a 36-year-old mother of four from the town of El Bur in Galgadud region, said her 5-year-old son contracted polio in early 2013.

"We rushed the child to a health centre in El Bur," she told Sabahi. "When they could not do anything, I brought him to Benadir Hospital in Mogadishu where I was told that my child had contracted polio."

The boy's left arm and leg are now crippled, she said.

Dirie quickly brought her other children to Mogadishu to receive the polio vaccine and said she has decided to stay there for the time being.

"Everything has been decreed by God, but al-Shabaab is the reason my child is a cripple," she said. "If the spread of this disease is not prevented and vaccinations [continue] to not be available in areas under al-Shabaab control it will be a tragedy."

Doctor Lul Ali Mohamud, director of the maternal and child clinic at Benadir Hospital, warned that more people could contract polio if the vaccine is not supplied across all regions in Somalia.

She said every new case of polio that emerges in Somalia represents a setback in the fight to eradicate the disease which can be overcome if and when the vaccine is available to all Somalis.

"It mostly cripples people in their legs and arms and can be fatal at times," she told Sabahi, adding that some of the symptoms include excessive diarrhoea and constant fever.

Mohamud said people may think they have a regular illness, but it is necessary to contact a doctor immediately if these symptoms are present.

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