Measles outbreak poses new threat to children in Somalia

Hussein Kassim Ali, director of Kismayo hospital in South Somalia, examines Maryan, 8 months, lying on her mother’s lap, and her brother Maseuud. Both children are suffering from measles and Maryan also has pneumonia, a severe complication caused by measles.
The cholera treatment centre at Kismayo General Hospital, the biggest hospital in Kismayo, hadn’t had any patients since the last outbreak was brought under control. But lately it has again been inundated with patients.

This time, the outbreak is measles – a highly contagious viral disease that can lead to pneumonia, diarrhoea, encephalitis which causes brain swelling, and blindness. Since September, 419 measles cases have been officially recorded, 302 of which are children under five. In Somalia, measles is a major cause of death among children – but it can be effectively prevented with a simple vaccine.

Lying on mattresses on the floor are dozens of children. Most of them are sleeping with their bodies curled up – oblivious of the heat and flies. Some have visibly swollen eyes, leaking pus from their eyes and nose. If awake, they look dazed and listless.

Among them are Maryan, 8 months, and her brother Maseuud, 1 year and 8 months. Maryan breathes rapidly and has contracted pneumonia, a severe complication caused by measles, while Maseuud has a rash all over his body. The children are accompanied by their mother, Maano.

“They have had a fever for 10 days, and also vomiting, coughing and congested chests,” says Maano. “We brought them here two days ago. It was only when we got here we realized that it was measles.”
On a mattress across from Maano and her children is Sahra and two of her children, Nasra, 3, and Abdirahman, 4. Both children are sleeping as if exhausted. They arrived today after being ill for more than a week.

“I took them to a private clinic and they thought it was malaria and gave us some medications,” says Sahra. “Then they started having rashes and itching eyes. A neighbour told me that it could be measles, so I rushed them here.”

When asked whether the children have ever been immunized, the mothers both answer “No.”

Strained resources

Hussein Kassim Ali, director of the hospital, is facing some big challenges these days. The hospital’s maternity wing is on the verge of being closed due to a funding gap from its donors. Now to make matters worse, he’s coping with the measles outbreak, and a possible seasonal increase in diarrhoea cases.

He is troubled by the fact that most of these mothers have never had their children immunized even though there are 16 free vaccination posts in town.

“We need to be prepared for the worst case scenario,” says Mr Ali. “We need mass vaccination campaigns. Communities need to be mobilized, vaccines need to be stocked up. We need help!”

UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Health from the regional Jubaland authorities and the Federal Government along with the International Red Cross, the World Health Organization and other partners on a mass vaccination campaign. Some 54,000 children aged between 9 months and 10 years old will be vaccinated against measles and receive vitamin A supplements to boost their immunity.

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