Somalilandsun— Hawa Nor carried her visibly weakened son into the hospital’s isolation ward. Like many sick children here, the 7-year-old boy is likely a victim of an old Somali wives’ tale: A child with measles should be kept inside, and away from the doctor, for a week.
Abdullahi Hassan labored to breathe, and his eyesight is deteriorating.
“Even though we kept him at home for a week, he’s getting weaker,” Nor tells the pediatrician.
Somalia is suffering from an outbreak of measles that the World Health Organization and the U.N. children’s agency labels “extremely alarming.” UNICEF reported 1,350 suspected cases of measles in March and April, a figure four times higher than the same period last year. Another 1,000 cases were reported in May.
Many children in the country are malnourished, and few have access to medical care, making an outbreak potentially dangerous for thousands of others. One additional danger that prevents early medical intervention is the belief by many parents that they should keep measles-infected children at home for a week for what they call an “incubation” period.
“Such delays cause clinical problems, including respiratory disorders, and in some cases they bring children malnourished who cannot survive without ventilation,” said Dr. Omar Abdi, a pediatrician at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu.
Though mostly eradicated in the United States, measles remains a common disease in many parts of Asia, the Pacific and Africa because of a lack of vaccinations. Even the U.S., where the disease has technically been eliminated, has seen a record number of measles cases this year.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the country has nearly 400 reported cases, more than twice as many as in all of 2013 and eight times as many as in all of 2012.
The measles is spreading in a handful of U.S. communities where pockets of unvaccinated people are found, the CDC reports.
In Somalia, the disease is spreading because of a lack of medical facilities. A measles vaccination costs only about $1, but millions of children remain exposed to the disease. Hunger and bad health add to the problem.
“We have a very high number of malnourished Somali children,” said Sikander Khan, the UNICEF Somalia representative. “Malnourished children here are more susceptible to disease and are more likely to die or suffer lifelong disability such as blindness, deafness or brain damage as a result of contracting measles.”
The World Health Organization says about 330 people, mostly children, die from measles every day globally.