Somalia celebrates polio-free 3 years

A Somali baby is given a polio vaccination in Mogadishu, Somalia,in this file photo. (AFP)
Updated 14 August 2017
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Somalia celebrates polio-free 3 years

JEDDAH: An event was held in Mogadishu on Monday to mark three years since the last detected case of polio in Somalia.
It was attended by Somalia’s president, MPs, delegates from the Health Ministry, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.
Speaking at the event, the WHO’s director for the Eastern Mediterranean, Dr. Mahmoud Fikri, applauded Somalia’s efforts to ward off the crippling and highly infectious virus, but urged continued caution.
“The absence of cases of polio in Somalia today is testament to the leadership, commitment and hard work of the government and people of Somalia, and the effective support and collaboration of many partners,” Fikri said.
“We need to remember, however, that Somalia is at risk of reinfection and we must stay vigilant.”
Somalia stopped endemic polio transmission in 2002, but was since twice affected by imports of the virus.
The outbreak in the Horn of Africa three years ago paralyzed nearly 200 children. Somalia was most affected, accounting for more than 90 percent of cases.
“The polio program in Somalia has fought hard to raise population immunity levels (against polio) across the country, and to improve surveillance system sensitivity to pick up traces of the disease,” said Fikri. “This is commendable, but there are still gaps we must continue to work to address.”
Insecurity and inaccessibility are key challenges for humanitarian partners operating in Somalia, particularly in the southern and central zones.
For the polio program, which aims to vaccinate every child under five years of age, innovative approaches are proving effective.
“Tools have been developed to help us map and track the movement of nomadic pastoral communities so we can reach children on the move,” said Dr. Ghulam Popal, WHO representative to Somalia.
“In addition, locally recruited village polio volunteers are helping us administer polio vaccine in and around places we can’t access. These volunteers also play a key role in helping to find and report cases of acute flaccid paralysis, which is an indicator for polio.”
The event celebrating three years polio-free comes amid the worst outbreak of measles the country has seen in years. Somalia is also still responding to a cholera outbreak that began in January.
“Polio infrastructure has been critical in responding to these other serious outbreaks,” Fikri said.
“We thank our donors and urge the international community to continue to support efforts to keep Somalia polio-free, and other much-needed health interventions in the country.”
Certificates of appreciation were presented to select individuals for outstanding contributions to Somalia’s anti-polio effort. Only nine cases of polio have been reported worldwide so far in 2017.


Migrants keep crossing Strait of Gibraltar despite bad weather

Updated 13 December 2018
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Migrants keep crossing Strait of Gibraltar despite bad weather

  • The onset of autumn, with the cold, storms and fog, has not stopped migrants from crossing the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain
  • On some days as many as over 500 migrants can be brought to shore by Spain’s maritime rescuers

TARIFA, Spain: A radio message comes in from a Spanish maritime rescue boat to the service’s command center in the southern town of Tarifa: “34 migrants rescued.”
The onset of autumn, with the cold, storms and fog, has not stopped migrants from crossing the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain, a journey that has this year claimed the lives of hundreds of youths.
From the heights of Tarifa, veteran sailors work in shifts behind radar screens at the rescue service command center monitoring the Strait of Gibraltar, through which 100,000 ships transit every year.
“When the weather is good we can see homes in North Africa from here,” said its head, Adolfo Serrano.
Just 14 kilometers (nine miles) separates northern Morocco from Spain’s southern Andalusia region at the Strait’s narrowest point.
“But with a quickly changing sea, strong currents, fogs that can surprise you, it’s a dangerous crossing,” added Serrano.
It is especially perilous because human traffickers put migrants on packed inflatable boats or plastic canoes that can easily overturn, he said.
“I can’t remember an autumn like this. Boats keep arriving with pregnant women, children,” said Jose Antonio Parra, a mechanic of 25 years experience with the Guardia Civil police force’s maritime unit.
The 34 migrants rescued from an inflatable boat — including six females who appeared to be in their teens — were taken to the port of Algeciras, where they were first attended to by the Red Cross before being handed to police.
Small migrant boats are hard to detect by radar. They are often only located when the migrants themselves sound the alarm by telephone.
Rescuers did not detect the boat which sunk on November 5 during a storm off the coast of the town of Barbate, an hour’s drive west of Algeciras, killing 23 young Moroccans.
Only 21 people on board survived.
“There was a hell of a storm. Many of them did not know how to swim,” said spokesman for the Guardia Civil in Cadiz province, Manuel Gonzalez.
Andalusia’s regional government took charge of nine minors who survived, while police jailed two passengers suspected of having steered the boat.
The other 10 adults who were on board were ordered back to Morocco under an agreement between Madrid and Rabat.
Since then, more bodies have washed ashore on other beaches.
Nine sub-Saharan African migrants drowned after spending a week adrift at sea, according to the only survivor of the ordeal, a Guinean teenager who saw his brother die, said Gonzalez.
The migrants had paid 700 euros ($800 dollars) each for what they had been told would be a trip on board a rigid-hulled inflatable boat with an engine but were instead forced to take a “toy-style boat” with just one oar, he added.
Between January and December 2, 687 migrants died trying to enter Spain by sea, more than three times as many as last year, according to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures.
More migrants have died trying to reach Italy and Malta this year — nearly 1,300 — but Spain has become the main entry point for migrants trying to reach Europe by sea. More than 55,000 migrants have arrived in the country so far this year.
Rescuers describe two types of migrants: Sub-Saharan African migrants, who sing when rescuers arrive to pluck them from the sea, and Moroccans who try at all costs to reach the shore without being detected because they face deportation back to Morocco if caught.
“Our boat rocked, there was so much joy,” Abou Bacari, an 18-year-old who left Ivory Coast two years ago after he lost his job at a banana plantation, told AFP in Madrid, as he recalled his rescue at sea off the Spanish coast in October.
There were 70 people on board the inflatable boat, including four children and eight women, when it departed Tangiers for Spain, he said.
“Guineans, Malians, Ivorians... we were lost at sea for two days,” Bacari said, adding “even the men cried” when the boat developed a puncture.
On some days — such as last weekend — as many as over 500 migrants can be brought to shore by Spain’s maritime rescuers.
“I had never before seen a boat just with 45 migrants aged around 14-15 on board. Even the one who steered it, who supposedly worked for the traffickers, was a minor,” said Parra.
It’s now 30 years since the first photo of the body of a drowned migrant on a beach in Andalusia was published.
Today rows of tombstones at Tarifa’s cemetery mark where unnamed migrants are buried.
“Sometimes we find migrants with their names tattooed on their arms in case they die. We are seeing a normalization of death and that is unacceptable,” said Jose Villajos, the head of an association that helps migrants founded in Algeciras in 1991.
He accused the European Union of “using North African countries to stop migration and act a bit like Europe’s police but this policy leads to even more deaths.”
“When agreements are being ironed out with African countries like Morocco, curiously, the number of migrant boats increase greatly because it is a way to put pressure on Europe,” he claimed.
Maria Jesus Herrera, the head of the IOM mission in Spain, said that while it was important to increase cooperation with the migrants’ country of origin to help boost their living standards, Europe must at the same time “open regular channels of emigration, which are safe and dignified.”