Children in front of chalk markings, indicating the residence has received treatment during the polio vaccination programme in South Sudan.

Children in front of chalk markings, indicating the residence has received treatment during the polio vaccination programme in South Sudan.

Great strides have been made towards the eradication of polio in recent years, which is why an outbreak of the highly infectious viral disease in the Horn of Africa last year was met with such dismay.

It began with a single case of polio in the Benadir region of Somalia in May. The virus was brought into the country from Nigeria, the last remaining African country with endemic polio.  

A week later, another case was reported in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. It continued to spread rapidly.

By the end of October there were 197 reported cases in the region and that total has now crept up to 207 – 185 in Somalia, 14 in Kenya and eight in Ethiopia, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

There is also the potential for the virus to spread into neighbouring countries.

Serious outbreak

The Red Cross Red Crescent is supporting the immunisation of 35 million children across seven countries in the region.

British Red Cross health delegate, Dr John Haskew, is working with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on a five month deployment in Nairobi.

“The current outbreak is very serious,” Dr Haskew said. “Polio spreads most rapidly in the poorest, most inaccessible and insecure areas where immunisation coverage is low and sanitation and hygiene are inadequate.

“Polio has spread rapidly from Somalia to neighbouring countries of Ethiopia and Kenya and transmission is ongoing.”


Dr Haskew, a medical doctor by training, has more than ten years’ experience working in international public health.

“Polio is highly infectious and caused by a virus that mostly affects children,” he said.

“Most infections don’t cause any symptoms, but the polio virus can cause irreversible paralysis in a matter of hours, if it invades the central nervous system.

“There is no cure, but there are safe and effective vaccines and the strategy to eradicate polio is based on preventing infection through routine immunisation as well as emergency vaccination to control an outbreak.”

Red Cross response

So what is the Red Cross doing to help?

“The IFRC is supporting Red Cross national societies to participate in emergency rounds of polio immunisation in countries throughout the region,” said Dr Haskew.

“Kenya and South Sudan Red Cross Societies, and the Somalia Red Crescent, have all supported national rounds of polio vaccination in their respective countries.

“Red Cross volunteers are raising community awareness of polio vaccination campaigns through household visits and community education activities, and some national societies are providing logistics and cold chain support (the transportation of vaccines within a requisite temperature range) to the Ministry of Health.

“The Red Cross is also implementing new mobile phone technologies to help map areas previously missed by polio vaccination to ensure they are covered in subsequent rounds of immunisation.”

Dr John Haskew during a training session

Dr John Haskew during a training session

There are, of course, numerous challenges along the way.

“On-going insecurity, population displacement and low rates of polio immunisation coverage all present significant challenges to stopping on-going transmission and ensuring the Horn of Africa becomes polio free once more,” added Dr Haskew. 

Global eradication

Since the launch of the GPEI in 1988, cases of polio have reduced by more than 99 per cent and the number of countries with endemic polio has reduced from 125 to three – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

“At the end of 2012, the fewest polio cases were recorded in the fewest countries ever, providing the best opportunity to eradicate polio, and last year the GPEI published a strategy to achieve eradication of polio by 2018,” Dr Haskew said.

“Eradication of polio will be the next historic global health achievement and the Red Cross is well placed to play a role in this achievement.”