Polio Outbreak in Somalia

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Ilesha Sevak

While Americans all over the country are getting ready for allergy season, the people of Somalia are battling a severe polio outbreak. According to the Huffington Post, 128 cases of polio were recorded for 2013 in Somalia alone. The BBC says that this number constitutes about half of the global cases in 2012. About six years ago, polio was declared non-existent in Somalia; therefore, this new outbreak has brought a lot of excitement and anxiety to the forefront. Polio is endemic to only three countries, Somalia not included. The current issue now is to try and contain the spread within Somalia. This is quite a difficult feat because many Somalis are running away to other places like northeastern Kenya, where 10 Somalis were reported to have polio, as reported by the BBC. The Huffington Post also reports 1 Somali in Ethiopia who has been diagnosed with polio.

Polio is often mentioned, but few know about the actual disease. The complete name is poliomyelitis. It is essentially a viral disease that is spread amongst humans through the fecal-oral route. Jakob Heine first discovered it in 1840 and Karl Landsteiner later identified the virus in 1908. In the majority of people, polio infections do not actually show any symptoms unless this virus penetrates into the patient’s blood stream. The most severe cases occur in 1% of the affected population where the virus enters the brain and spinal cord. At this point, all of the body’s motor neurons become inflamed and destroyed which causes the paralysis most commonly associated with polio. This paralysis sometimes takes no more than a few hours to affect the whole body.

The situation in Somalia is tremulous due to lack of medical help. A war-stricken nation, acts of violence against foreigners and even locals are considered commonplace in Somalia at this time. Most of the medical help that Somalia has access to is through charities which supply medical supplies and basic surgeries. However, one of the prominent medical charities Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) shut down all of its efforts in Somalia due to frequent attacks. The loss of this major charity may spell disaster for the Somalis suffering from polio.

The challenge of providing healthcare in Somalia explains the low percentage of immunized people in Somalia. According to the Huffington Post, no more than 50% of the Somali population has been immunized. This low immunization rate could be cause for the widespread reach of the polio infection because when immunization is low, a virus has a greater chance of surviving.

International organizations, the Somalian government, and local health volunteers have all come together to combat the spread of polio. Within the first five days of the first case that was discovered, hundreds of thousands of children were immediately vaccinated as a preventive measure. Organizations like the Somali Red Crescent Society, Kenyan Red Cross Society, and British Red Cross have also played a large part in combatting the spread of polio throughout Somalia. Let’s hope this crisis is quickly resolved as the people of Somalia persevere through this rough time.

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