Sagal Faduma, a mother of three including five-month-old Maryan, is seated on a mat outside her house, a tree that lies next to the house in Xirkadheere, Banaadir region of Somalia providing a shade for the mother and daughter.

Maryan has a crestfallen look on her face indicating that despite being hungry she does not want any of the porridge that her mother is trying to feed her, her eyes are wide with a partially opened mouth. Sometimes she can be seen eating the porridge but mostly rejects it.

Sagal gives up on feeding her and Maryan screams with delight, her face gleaming with joy as she bounced up and down on her mother’s lap.

Somalia is among high-risk Polio outbreak countries due to its fragile and vulnerable population that mostly includes nomads, displaced people and people living in rural and slum areas.

In recent years Somalia has witnessed two polio outbreaks in 2013-2014 and 2017-2018, outbreaks which mostly affect children who are not vaccinated against the disease-causing virus, like baby Maryan.

Currently, there is a polio outbreak in southern and central parts of Somalia.

UN agencies in Somalia have rolled out a program to immunize children against polio but parents such as Sagal are scared about the spread of the coronavirus.

“I follow news about the coronavirus on radio,” Faduma said.

“It affects children and old people. My father is close to his 80s and I am afraid that the people going around might infect my child or my father with the virus. I am not sure whether I want my child to be vaccinated, other mothers have said they will not.”

44-year-old Thabit Liban who is also a father to a new-born baby boy said: “People are afraid of the coronavirus disease, there is no trust among parents, if they ask me to bring my child somewhere I will go but I will not put the lives of my friends and family at risk, also I am supposed to travel to the Galguduud district today, so as I move there I doubt my child will be vaccinated because we will be on the road”.

Somalia is currently conducting a polio immunization campaign targeting over 1.65 million children. Polio vaccinators can be seen going from door to door with megaphones calling on families with children under the age of five to come and be vaccinated.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, which have launched the vaccination drive, have assured the masses that all precautionary measures have been taken to ensure that the exercise is safe.

The UN agencies say that their health workers are observing all COVID-19 health and safety measures as they conduct the immunization drive.

“Carefully selected health workers were given protective face masks and gloves and were trained rigorously to ensure they kept themselves and their families safe from COVID-19,” the WHO said in a statement.

Precautionary measures taken during the workday include washing hands regularly, wearing face masks and ensuring physical distancing.

The WHO says that its teams are spread across all regions with the main aim being to reach as many children as possible: those living in urban and rural locations, with nomadic lifestyles, as well as those living in camps for internally displaced people.

Mamunur Rahman Malik, the WHO representative for Somalia, said in a statement that “the only way to stop such outbreaks from vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio, is to vaccinate every child every time immunization services are offered, either through routine programmes or through such mass campaigns.

“We all have a moral responsibility to reach and boost the immunity of every last child in Somalia. Owing to access, security and health-seeking behaviour, we are missing a large number of children every year, who are not receiving these life-saving vaccines.”

For his part, Werner Schultink, UNICEF representative for Somalia, stated: “It is critical that all routine immunizations continue, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, These vaccination drives will help prevent further outbreaks and will protect children from deadly diseases so they can survive and thrive.”

According to the UN, 6,266 vaccinators in urban areas and 2,685 vaccinators in rural areas will be going from door to door to vaccinate 1.65 million children aged under five with oral polio vaccine during the ongoing campaign. In efforts to reach every child possible, an additional 1,125 team supervisors will be visiting households in targeted areas. As many as 3,390 community mobilizers, sensitizing target communities, will play a key role in helping families to understand, trust and accept vaccines.

The four-day vaccination campaign will end on Sept. 23.

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