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Severe outbreak of polio threatens Somalia’s children

Many children in Somalia remain unvaccinated
Many children in Somalia remain unvaccinated

More than 100 cases of polio have been reported in Somalia this year and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is warning that the outbreak could become ‘explosive’.

As the WHO and other agencies such as GAVI and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fight to eradicate polio, the situation in Somalia is of grave concern. Already, the country has seen almost half the number of cases which were reported for the world in total last year (223). Another 10 cases of polio have also been recorded in north-eastern Kenya, where more than half a million Somalis are living, mostly in refugee camps.

Somalia was declared free of polio six years ago, but due to instability and conflict across much of the centre and south, many of the country’s infants and young children have not been vaccinated in recent years. More areas of the country are coming under government, Ethiopian or African Union control. However, the United Nations humanitarian agency, OCHA, said that carrying out vaccination work in Somalia is still “extremely challenging”.

This is an understatement, since this week health work in the country received a severe blow when the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) announced that it is closing all its programmes in Somalia. MSF has been working in the war-torn country for 22 years, but due to “extreme attacks on its staff” now feels it has no option but to pull out.

Somalia’s civilians pay the cost

More than 1,500 staff working for MSF had been providing a range of services in Somalia and MSF’s international president said it had been one of the hardest decisions the charity had ever had to make. But in a statement, MSF explained that since 1991, 16 of its workers have been killed and there have been dozens more attacks on its staff, ambulances and medical facilities. Only last month, two of the charity’s staff were finally released after being held hostage for nearly two years. In its statement, MSF said the current situation was one where armed groups and civilian leaders were prepared to “support, tolerate or condone the killing, assaulting and abducting of humanitarian aid workers”.

Commenting on the charity’s decision to leave Somalia, the BBC’s international development correspondent said that MSF had been “the only provider of health care” in many parts of the country. The charity’s withdrawal therefore leaves large swathes of the population without access to any health services and MSF’s president acknowledged that “ultimately, civilians in Somalia will pay the highest cost”.

SOS Children’s Villages continues to maintain a presence in Somalia through its village and vocational training centre in Mogadishu.

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