Thanks to a large vaccination and immunization campaign, Somalia has had no cases of polio in the past three years and has been declared polio-free by the UN. Now, just three countries with polio remain.

Somali boy receives a polio vaccination. Image credits: Andrew W. McGalliard / US DoD.

The polio vaccine was introduced in 1955. There were over 28,000 confirmed cases that year, though the real number of people infected with the diseases was certainly much larger (since 99% of people have no symptoms at all). The number went down dramatically. By 1988, polio cases were confined to only some areas of the world. In an all-out effort to eradicate the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the Rotary Foundation, focused on these areas — and they had noticeable success. They managed to reduce the number of annual diagnosed cases to 37 confirmed cases in 2016. We’re inching closer to truly wiping the disease, and Somalia can now enter the large club of polio-free countries.

The head of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean, which covers Somalia, Mohamed Fiqi said that all this is done due to the massive vaccination campaign and the international support received by Somalia.

“As the world edges closer to eradicating polio, keeping alert in countries that have high risk of polio importation like Somalia is more of priority than ever,” Fiqi said.

“As we move forward, the polio programme in Somalia needs to continue to work to maintain and improve the level of population immunity against polio through target vaccination campaign and strengthening of the routine immunisation services and infrastructure,” Fiqi added.

According to the WHO, the country recorded its last polio case in 2014, which technically means that it’s polio-free. But Somalia still remains vulnerable to importing the virus. At the moment, only three countries still report new polio cases: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. In Nigeria, there has yet to be a single case in 2017. There was also an outbreak in Syria, the first there in 14 years, largely due to the civil war which prevented vaccination campaigns. If these campaigns remain on course, it’s easy to see a future where polio is truly eradicated, joining the likes of smallpox and rinderpest.

The effectiveness of the vaccination campaign becomes even more impressive when you consider that in Somalia, it only started 20 years ago. WHO and UNICEF conducted the first subnational immunizations days in Somalia in 1997 and the first national immunization days covering the entire country in 1998. Implementation of a house-to-house strategy was started in 1999. However, Somalia’s not in the clear when it comes to infectious diseases.

This announcement comes on the back of the worst outbreak of measles the country has seen in years. Somalia is also battling an outbreak of acute watery diarrhoea/cholera that started in January. Still, the polio infrastructure was critical in enabling the government to provide support in these outbreaks. It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The last natural smallpox case was also in Somalia, on 26 October 1977.