Disease Eradication: Somalia Then and Now

In 1978 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, “As of April 14, 1978, no cases of smallpox have been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from anywhere in the world since the last case had onset of rash on October 26, 1977, in Merka town, Somalia. However, a total of 2 years of effective surveillance must elapse before this last endemic area can be confirmed to be smallpox-free.” Thirty-five years later Somalia is linked with difficult efforts to eradicate another disease, polio.

Now unfortunately, “Somalia hadn’t had a case of polio for nearly six years. But in the past few months, the virus has come back,” according to National Public Radio (NPR)  In fact the 73 cases reported from Somalia so far this year, surpasses the 59 cases reported in the rest of the world. NPR further notes that, “Somalia has the rate of polio vaccination in the world after Equatorial Guinea, according to the World Health Organization.”

Thirty-five years ago, challenges hampering disease eradication were the natural environment. “During October and November surveillance in Somalia has been severely hampered by heavy rains that have made it difficult or impossible to travel by vehicle. Since work has had to be continued on foot, there have been some delays in reporting and incomplete search coverage in certain areas,” CDC reported.

Today it is human conflict, not the weather, that inhibits control. NPR’s report notes that, “The Somali government directs the campaigns, but it doesn’t control or have access to vast swaths of the country. Some of the most recent polio cases have occurred in areas that are considered off limits to vaccination teams.” Conflict in Pakistan in December-January also tried to create off limits areas by killing polio workers.

Because polio is a fecal-oral disease it spreads with people. Not surprisingly, cases are appearing in Somali refugee camps in Kenya.  All countries in the region are on alert as extra vaccination efforts will be needed. And as NPR observes, this may draw resources from countries like Nigeria that are very close to eliminating the disease.  Ironically the polio virus strain found in Somalia was traced to Nigeria.

pf_mean_2010_som-sm.jpgPolio cannot be easily compared with malaria which has a vector, and also an larger arsenal of effective tools – insecticide treated nets, indoor residual spraying, chemo-prevention drugs, rapid diagnostic tests and effective medicines.  But the diseases face similar challenges that are more often human than deriving from the natural environment.  Human conflict deters malaria control in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the Central African Republic and in South Sudan.

Unlike for polio, we are not even close to numbering malaria cases in the dozens, but the as the recent Abuja Summit has shown, we must have the political will to rise above conflict and inefficient health systems and face down these devastating diseases.

(PS – fortunately as we can see in the attached map, malaria is not a pressing problem in Somalia.)

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