- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

NEW YORK — The United Nations this week declared Somalia free of polio, an odds-defying victory that some public health officials say can be adapted to other medical campaigns in the developing world.

Tens of thousands of local volunteers last year immunized an estimated 1.8 million children throughout Somalia, overcoming obstacles that range from dilapidated infrastructure to poor sanitation to tribal and clan frictions and, most dauntingly, the near absence of a central government to support the operation.

Working in their own villages and regions, Somalis located and inoculated children in deeply isolated areas, often overcoming clan fighting to do so.

If it can work in Somalia we should be able to make this work anywhere, said Dr. Elias Durry of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who led the Somalia campaign on behalf of the World Health Organization, Rotary International and UNICEF.

We think this can be a model for any other immunization drive, or tuberculosis, or distributing bed nets for malaria, he added. There is no trade secret. We’ve used something similar for bird flu in Nigeria and cholera outbreaks.

Polio, a waterborne infection that can leave children paralyzed, crippled or dead, was on track for eradication in 2000.

However, officials in three Muslim provinces in northern Nigeria abruptly refused vaccinations, calling the program a Jewish conspiracy to give their children AIDS and spreading other myths.

U.N. agencies tried desperately to overcome the objections, but the damage was expanding quickly: Infected people, often asymptomatic, were traveling throughout Africa and flying around the world. Before long, the battle against polio was being fought anew in places like Chad, Sudan and Somalia.

Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation injected $200 million into the effort, focusing on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, where the polio virus is endemic.

Dr. Durry stressed the importance of respecting tribal and clan leaders and giving them a role in developing a strategy.

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