Simple steps can help eradicate polio for good. BBC Media Action senior researcher in Somalia explains how a radio show helped inform a family about polio – and how to prevent it.
By: Hodan Ibrahim
Somalilandsun – I didn’t know that a simple radio programme could help change lives, until I began working as a researcher for BBC Media Action.
State House, the site of a dilapidated colonial building from which the British were once based, is now one of the largest camps for IDP (Internally Displaced People) in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland. People living in temporary housing here – round huts covered with colourful rags – suffer from poverty, unemployment and a lack of basic sanitation facilities. They are also at high risk of contracting polio – an orally contracted virus which can cause crippling paralysis, especially amongst children under five years old.
I recently travelled to State House to conduct research on the impact of Dhibcaha Nolosha(Drops for Life), our weekly drama and discussion radio that aims to help improve understanding about polio and challenge negative attitudes towards polio vaccination. The programme is called ‘Drops for Life’ because the recommended vaccine ‘Oral Polio Vaccination’ (OPV) requires at least three doses of ‘drops’ before a child is fully immunised.
It was at State House that I met Abdirahman, a 13 year-old boy affected by polio – and completely paralysed on the right side of his body.
Smiling up at me from a chair, I was compelled to find out more about his story.
His mother explained that when Abdirahman was born, she noticed her baby wasn’t moving as much as he should. At first, like most of the parents in the community, she assumed that it was an evil wind passing through him – and that he would soon recover. Butafter 10 months, his condition still hadn’t improved.
After multiple checks at a disability clinic in Hargeisa, she was advised her child was fine – but by age five, Abdirahman still wasn’t moving. Being a worried mother she asked for a second opinion from a local neurology expert.
After the doctor had examined the child he explained: “Your son has been affected by polio, if you had come four years ago I could’ve given him an injection that may have helped his nervous system, now it’s too late to give him anything.” The mother was distraught.
Sadly, although there’s ways of alleviating the pain and discomfort caused by polio, there’s no cure. The only sure way to prevent polio is through vaccination.
While speaking to Abdirahman’s mother, I asked her what she learnt from listening to Dhibcaha Nolosha. She told us: “the most important thing I’ve learnt is how the polio virus is transmitted.” Now, with the knowledge that polio can be passed on through the faeces of infected people and droplets from a sneeze or cough, Abdirahman’s mother makes sure her family washes their hands with soap before eating and that they drink boiled water.
She’s now also an advocate for vaccination in her community, telling us; “Even though I now vaccinate my children I didn’t know that polio vaccination needed to be taken multiple times.” She added: “my message [to others] is vaccinate your children multiple times because I wouldn’t wish upon you the struggles I have gone through with my child and the pain I feel when he sees his friends standing and running.”
Somalia was recently declared polio free by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in October 2015 – a testament to the work done by the Somali health authorities, with the support of UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) and the partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). BBC Media Action is proud to have worked with UNICEF on their response. However there’s a need to remain ever vigilant to ensure there is no resurgence of the virus.
With the help of programmes like Dhibcaha Nolosha, more people like Abdirahman’s mother are being equipped with the knowledge to eradicate this terrible disease for good.
The author Hodan Ibrahim is Senior Researcher, BBC Media Action Somali