Somalia is one of the few countries remaining with a risk of poliovirus transmission. The polio program in Somalia was established as a way to eradicate the virus completely as part of the global immunization effort. However, with the arrival of SARS-CoV-2, the polio program in Somalia has been stifled. Somalia ranks 194 out of 195 on the Global Health Security Index. The international recommendation for healthcare workers is 25 per 100,000 people; however, Somalia only has two per 100,000 people. The country also has only 15 intensive care beds for a population of 15 million. It is considered to be among the least prepared countries in the world to detect and execute a quick response to COVID-19.
Effects of the Pandemic on the Polio Program in Somalia
Many of the workers that are part of the polio program in Somalia have suspended all door-to-door immunization due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With travel kept to a minimum, polio samples cannot be flown abroad to external medical labs for testing. In addition to this, millions of polio vaccines will expire in a matter of months.
The global polio immunization program paused at the end of March 2020, leaving more than 20 million workers and medical practitioners without work. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the number of unvaccinated children could reach 60 million by June in the Mediterranean region.
The Polio Program Fights COVID-19
Polio surveillance systems are developed disease surveillance systems. This network of disease surveillance has been able to track the poliovirus and deploy medical teams throughout the world. Now, the polio program in Somalia has shifted its efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The system’s infrastructure, its capacity and the experience of its medical staff make it prepared to deal with the novel coronavirus. As of July 2020, Somalia had approximately 3,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 930 recovered cases and 90 deaths. The number of actual cases is likely significantly larger, but many cases go undetected due to a lack of testing.
Thousands of frontline workers for the polio program in Somalia started curbing the spread of the coronavirus. These workers form rapid response teams trained to detect COVID-19 cases as well as to educate and raise awareness about the ongoing pandemic in Somalia. WHO’s national staff and local community healthcare workers have joined theses polio response teams, utilizing their resources and skills to tackle the virus.
These teams have traveled to remote areas in Somalia, providing critical information regarding physical distancing, hand-washing, detection of symptoms and prevention. With WHO’s aid, the program has acquired testing kits and equipment to evaluate potential cases of the virus. The surveillance teams have adopted the same procedures that they used for the polio program in Somalia for COVID-19. After collecting potential COVID-19 samples from suspected cases, the rapid response teams transport the samples to external laboratories for testing. Outside humanitarian agencies use the same protocols and operations that they used for the poliovirus.
Furthermore, the response teams continue polio immunization simultaneously with the COVID-19 response. It is essential for the polio program to continue immunization, as Somalia experienced a polio outbreak earlier this year.
How Other Countries Have Adapted
Other countries in the same region have realized the practicality of the polio network. They have accordingly redeployed their own immunization programs to fight COVID-19. For example, South Sudan has converted approximately 80% of its polio workforce to track coronavirus cases in the country. It has trained polio contact tracers to evaluate people for symptoms of COVID-19. Mali has also been engaging its own polio program in response to the ongoing pandemic.
Even though polio and COVID-19 do not have much in common, the polio program is an important tool to fight the pandemic. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the WHO, has been working to equip these polio networks to help countries deal with the pandemic. The suddenness of the pandemic has left no time for countries such as Somalia to prepare. As such, the global polio immunization campaign is a valuable resource for this unprecedented emergency.
– Abbas Raza