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Somalia is again polio-free

28 March 2008 -- Somalia is again polio-free; role of history in public health today.

Transcript of WHO podcast

Daniela Bagozzi:You’re listening to the WHO podcast. My name is Daniela Bagozzi, and this is episode 30.

In this episode,

  • With no new cases reported in a year, Somalia is again polio-free; and
  • The WHO 60th anniversary Global Heath Histories seminar series.

Story 1

Daniela Bagozzi: WHO this week announced that Somalia is again polio-free, calling it a 'historic achievement' in public health. No new polio case has been reported in Somalia in the past 12 months. This is the result of an intensified immunization campaign to wipe out the disease in the country's remaining few polio strongholds.

Dr Mohamed Wahdan is the Special Advisor for Polio Eradication in the Regional Office for THE Eastern Mediterranean of WHO. He tells us how WHO and partners organized the immunization campaign in Somalia.

Dr Mohamed Wahdan: This success was achieved as a result first of the efforts of more than 10 000 Somali volunteers and health workers, who have been travelling across the country from tent to tent, house to house, village to village, to find and immunize every child against polio.

These 10 000 vaccinators worked under extremely challenging and sometimes very dangerous circumstances. We engaged all the communities AND community leaders in order to be able to access children all over Somalia. Also we have introduced some new strategies in order to make sure that we are able to access children. We all know that 50% of Somalia population are nomadic, and so we had to do some mapping of nomadic populations routes. We identified key gathering sites and we set vaccination posts in these areas. And, we also used every possible window of opportunity during cessation of hostilities to conduct rapid and intense mop-ups in which we were giving the children more than one dose in the areas which are known to be with polio transmission.

Daniela Bagozzi: Since 1988, the incidence of polio worldwide has been reduced by more than 99%. Today, only four countries remain where endemic transmission of polio has not been stopped. These are: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. The success in Somalia shows that even in the most challenging settings, polio eradication strategies do work.

Dr Mohamed Wahdan: In Afghanistan and Pakistan we really have similar circumstances as also Somalia, in the areas between the two countries which are insecure and there are considerable population movements between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And this success in Somalia through these tailored strategies gives us hope that we can employ similar things.

Daniela Bagozzi: That was Dr Mohammed Wahdan, talking about the polio immunization campaign in Somalia.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is a joint effort of national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF. These agencies work hand in hand with volunteers and health workers on the ground. One of the 10 000 Somali vaccinators is Ali Mao Moallim. More than 30 years ago Ali was the last person in the world to contract smallpox. Over the past few years, working with WHO, he has criss-crossed Somalia to immunize children against polio and to involve communities in the immunization efforts. He tells us what it means to him.

Ali Mao Moallim: I work for WHO in the polio section and I am responsible for social mobilization. I tell the community that I am the last person who had smallpox and I tell them about the importance of vaccines, and the danger of not being vaccinated. I don’t want the Somali community to be the last country to have a polio case. My hope is and I believe 100% if we work together we can eradicate polio.

Story 2

Daniela Bagozzi: This year, WHO is celebrating its 60th anniversary. To mark the occasion, history is the focus of the Global Health Histories seminar series. Thompson Prentice, the coordinator of the project, came into the studio to tell us more about the importance of history in public health.

Thompson Prentice: The Global Health Histories project was launched about three years ago with the intention of trying to show that the understanding of the history of health of the last 60 years helps us to respond to the challenges of health facing the world today. We may think that we are up-to-date with the latest innovations and technologies and drugs and treatments. But the fact is that there is a great deal to be learned from the past in almost any field of health that you care to look. And what we know is that across the world there is a large network of expert historians in almost any aspect of health and we want to try to bring their knowledge and their experience and their insights to help the World Health Organization and to help a wider public.

Q: So tell us a little bit about this series of seminars, and why is this one different from the past?

Thompson Prentice: We start with a fascinating look at health in the immediate aftermath of World War II when millions of people were displaced, refugees, hopeless, homeless at risk of disease and generally poor physical and psychological health. So we have a speaker coming in to talk about the establishment of what was called the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration right at the end of the war and how in time that led to the emergence of the World Health Organization in 1948.

Q: What are the other subjects you are looking at in the other seminars?

Thompson Prentice: We have a good spread of subjects which span one way or another the last 60 years and so we are looking at subjects as varied as the effects of climate change in West Africa because of the use of land and agriculture. We have got a really eccentric-sounding paper on Marcel Proust and the global history of asthma. We talk about the history of antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS in Zambia. We talk about international nursing organizations and some of the cold war politics and how they affected health.

Daniela Bagozzi: And that was Thompson Prentice. You can learn more about this seminar series by visiting the web site and clicking on Programmes and Projects, and then on Global Health Histories.

That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. If you have any comments on our podcast or have any suggestions for future health topics do drop us a line. Our email address is