VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
IRC responds to polio outbreak in Dadaab refugee camps
June 11, 2013 by Sophia Jones-Mwangi
|The massive Dadaab refugee camp complex in Kenya, seen from the air. Photo: Brendan Bannon/UNCHR|
The International Rescue Committee in Kenya has been responding to a polio outbreak in the world’s largest refugee complex, Dadaab. “We were the first organization to detect the disease,” explains Hassan Coulibaly, who runs IRC’s operations in Hagadera, one of five camps in this sprawling complex that houses almost half a million refugees, mainly from Somalia.
“One of our doctors suspected that a child he was treating was showing signs of acute flaccid paralysis, a sign of polio,” explains Coulibaly. “He immediately isolated the child and collected a stool sample for analysis.”
Two of the child’s close family members also had their stool samples collected. Both tested positive for polio, confirming the outbreak. Interestingly, the child’s samples came back negative.
“A major lesson we learned from that case was the need to test close family members,” says Coulibaly. “Otherwise the disease would have gone undetected and would have spread more widely.”
Poliomyelitis, a childhood viral disease, causes paralysis of the limbs. “It is an extremely contagious virus, particularly in areas where hygiene is poor,” says Coulibaly. But it can be prevented with a vaccine.
“Polio is about to be eliminated in the world,” notes Coulibaly, referring to the global eradication effort lead by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and other groups. The IRC has been commended by WHO for its efforts in Dadaab. Since the first case in Hagadera, 11 suspected cases have been detected. Mohamed Hassan’s four-month-old daughter, Fatuma, was one of the first to be diagnosed.
“Initially, I thought my baby was suffering from flu, since she had a fever and cough, but then her limbs starting paralyzing,” Hassan recalls. “I took her to the main IRC hospital. They started the treatment immediately. I am grateful to the IRC doctors for their care.”
To stop the spread of diseases like polio and cholera in the Dadaab complex, the IRC has reached out to more than 72,000 residents in Hagadera and 15,500 in neighboring Kambioos camp, with public awareness messages stressing personal hygiene. IRC officials organized a “mop-up” campaign that aimed to immunize all children under age 15. A follow-up effort to vaccinate the general population—a total of 162,000 people—is scheduled to start June 15.
In addition, the IRC has worked with partner aid organizations to increase the chlorine levels in Dadaab’s water and distribute soap throughout the complex. We trained 213 community health workers on polio detection and response, and organized daily Outbreak Control Team meetings.
“These meetings include our partners in water sanitation and health, the camp management, education and health partners as well as religious leaders,” says Coulibaly. “It is crucial that there is full representation to combat the diseases.”