- A three-year-old Somali girl born in a refugee camp in northern Kenya has contracted polio, Nairobi authorities and the World Health Organisation (WHO) today confirmed. This is Kenya's first polio case since 1984, but health officials fear the virus already may have spread among hundreds of Kenyans and Somali refugees.
Kenyan Minister of Health Charity Kaluki Ngilu and WHO representatives have confirmed that tests taken from the young Somali girl last week were positive on the polio virus. Preliminary reports also conclude that the girl had been infected on Kenyan soil, as she never had been abroad, according to her mother.
Kenya's first polio case in 22 years has sparked fears that the north-eastern Kenyan refugee camps, housing over 160,000 Somalis, could be the nucleus of new polio epidemic in the country. Health officials for more than a year have warned against the return of polio from Somalia into Kenya, crossing the porous border.
The case in Hagadera - one of three Somali refugee camps in Dadaab - was found to be especially mysterious and frightening. The girl's mother claims the child had been vaccinated during the recent mass polio immunisation campaign, organised in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. It was therefore mysterious how she could have gotten infected, if she has not carried the highly infectious virus for a long time.
WHO spokeswomen Sona Bari today feared that the last option could be the case. She said that for every case of polio, there could be 200 people who showed no symptoms of the disease but carried and spread the virus. The girl's infection could indicate that a larger number of people in the camps had caught the virus.
"This new case is quite worrying, and a team composed of government officials, UNHCR, WHO and the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF) is on the way to Dadaab today to organise a response to this threat," announced spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis of the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Also her agency - which is responsible of the Somali refugees - was especially worried about how the girl had "contracted polio".
The situation in north-eastern Kenya is seen as chaotic. Dadaab already hosts 160,000 Somali refugees in three sites, and more than 34,000 Somalis have fled to Kenya since the beginning of the year. "We fear this figure could climb to 80,000 by the end of the year," Ms Pagonis said at a Geneva press briefing.
Somalia is also the Horn of Africa country strongest hit by the return of the polio virus. Polio-free for almost three years, Somalia became re-infected last year. To date, there are a total of 215 confirmed cases, and 14 out of Somalia's 19 regions have been infected, according to the WHO. Warfare and chaotic circumstances make any polio immunisation campaign difficult.
Also Ethiopia, bordering both countries, saw the reappearance of polio in 2004. At least 37 cases, mostly in the Somali border region, have been registered so far. The "outbreak in Somalia and Ethiopia is widespread among the ethnic Somali population," said WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib, adding that this had "put Kenya at high risk."
Health officials had warned of a rising risk for polio in Kenya already one year ago, as the virus was spreading in Somalia. Kenya's UNICEF health leader Iyabode Olusanmi in October 2005 warned about a polio outbreak along the Somali border, because there were "a lot of human movements between Somalia and Kenya."
This "free access" had put the border area in high risk. "The district of Nairobi is also in high risk," the UNICEF health leader added. There is a large traffic between the Somali refugee camps and the Kenyan capital, a city of an estimated 3 to 4 million inhabitants.
In September this year, however, WHO and national governments have launched a massive polio immunisation campaign, which aimed at reaching 956,886 children in eastern Ethiopia, 1.7 million children all over Somalia and 240,000 children in Kenyan districts bordering Somalia and Ethiopia. So far, only the first phase of this immunisation campaign has been completed.
According to WHO test results, the polio infection in northern Kenya comes from a strain found in Somalia, which has its origin in Nigeria. During a world-wide campaign from 1998 to 2003, WHO was almost successful in totally eradicating polio.
Opposition to vaccination by Islamic clerics in Northern Nigeria however led to a re-surfacing of the virus. Since 2003, the Nigerian strain of polio has been able to spread to 26 African and Asian countries that had previously eradicated polio. This new spread has necessitated enormous vaccination campaigns of children born since polio had disappeared from these countries, adding up to billion of dollars and paralysing thousands of children.
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