By Joshua Isaac

In a significant stride towards accelerating polio eradication and improving child health, the Somali government has launched a National Immunization and Polio Eradication Task Force.

Chaired by the Prime Minister of Somalia, Hamza Barre, the task force will oversee polio eradication and immunization initiatives nationwide, and mobilise resources to ensure that every child in the country receives essential life-saving vaccines.

Speaking at the launch in Mogadishu, Barre reiterated Somalia’s commitment to stopping the transmission of polio by providing strong support and oversight of polio eradication and routine immunization interventions, adding that, “we commit to preventing the vaccine-preventable diseases as a leading cause of child mortality and efforts to improve vaccination in Somali as a priority for the Government.”

Polio has been circulating uninterrupted in Somalia for seven years. Since 2021, the country has reported 16 cases of polio. Furthermore, up to 1.5 million children in Somalia have not received essential vaccinations, with experts warning that without intensified efforts, Somalia is unlikely to meet its 2030 SDG target of 25 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The task force comprises key health officials at both Federal and state levels, as well as international partners, reflecting a unified front in the battle against polio. In conjunction with the establishment of the task force, the Prime Minister also inaugurated the Child Survival Forum, which will review the current progress and devise strategies to accelerate efforts in reducing child mortality.

Recognizing the critical need to enhance child health services in Somalia, the forum will serve as a platform for stakeholders to collaborate, share best practices, and develop action plans to advance child survival initiatives.

“I am proud to say that the Government of Somalia, along with our partners, has taken several steps to address these challenges, including initiatives such as Damal Caafimaad and Better Lives to ensure universal health coverage for all. I call upon all to support integrated service delivery, especially for children,” said Health Minister Dr. Ali Abubakar.

With current immunization services falling short of the required scale and consistency, the launch of the National Immunization and Polio Task Force and the Child Survival Forum represent a crucial step towards strengthening healthcare infrastructure.

Speaking virtually, Dr Hanan Balkhy, Regional Director for WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region notes: “This high-level forum will be instrumental in addressing the protection of more than 1.5 million ‘zero dose’ children who have never received a dose of life-saving vaccines and help in bringing the longest-running outbreak of variant poliovirus to an end.”

At the heart of intensified efforts is immunization, which alone can prevent two-thirds of child deaths. A recent assessment of health facilities found that immunization services were available in only 56 per cent of public hospitals, 68 per cent of health centres, and 19 per cent of primary health care units.

“The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is grateful for Somalia’s leadership and strong commitment to their children. Through the government’s leadership, in partnership with nongovernmental organizations, work to stop polio and increase access to immunization is more robust than ever. I am confident that Somalia will prevent thousands of polio, measles, pneumonia, and vaccine-preventable diseases,” said Andrew Stein, deputy director of the polio team at The Gates Foundation.

Acting UNICEF Representative Charles Lolika stressed the importance of wider and consistent immunization services, noting that, “We believe that with Somalia’s resilience and determination, supported by partners and strategies and guidelines to enhance maternal and child health, rapid progress is possible.”