In Somalia, a wives' tale delays measles treatment

Old wives' tale worsens measles, hinders care in Somalia outbreak, worrying health experts


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MOGADISHU, Somalia — Hawa Nor carried her visibly weakened son into the hospital’s isolation ward. Like many sick children in this Horn of Africa nation, 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,” Ms. 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.

In Somalia, the disease is spreading because of a lack of medical facilities. A measles vaccination costs only about $1, but in Somalia, the disease is spreading because of a lack of medical facilities. Hunger and bad health add to the problem.

Two decades of conflict have devastated Somalia’s health sector. An estimated 1 in 5 children dies before his or her fifth birthday, and measles is one of the main causes. Vaccination in areas al-Shabab militants control is difficult. Health officials estimate that only 15 percent of children there are protected. The WHO and UNICEF say a nationwide campaign to vaccinate about 5 million children at a cost of $9 million is needed to prevent thousands of avoidable deaths.

“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.”

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,” Omar Abdi, a pediatrician at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu, said.

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 United States, where the disease has technically been eliminated, has seen a record number of measles cases this year.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the nation 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.

united nations - Mogadishu - Somalia - East Africa - Africa - World Health Organization - United Nations Children's Fund


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