The world has reached the last mile in eradicating the Polio virus, a devastating disease responsible for the hardship of many children and their families. Today, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two remaining polio endemic countries fighting to eliminate the disease. Ethiopia, with its committed government and international partners such as the World Health Organization, Rotary International, UNICEF, CDC and others, has been able to be polio free for the past 22 months; the last reported case being in January 2014. The question now remains how the country will maintain that status.
Capital’s Teguest Yilma sat down with Dr. Pierre M’Pele Kilebou WHO representative to Ethiopia, during the 17 Sub National Immunization Campaign launching in Shinile, Somali Region to discuss WHO’s contribution to the eradication polio in Ethiopia as well as the challenges that lay ahead.
Capital: Tell us about the polio situation in Ethiopia today and the work of the World Health Organization in that regard.
Dr. Pierre M’Pele Kilebou: Ethiopia had been polio-free for four years until August 2013 with the last indigenous case confirmed in 2001. In April 2013, a Wild Polio Virus (WPV) outbreak was confirmed in Somalia, which later spread to Kenya and in Ethiopia in the Somali region, where ten cases of WPV were reported, from April 2013 to January 2014, in the Dollo zone.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is working closely with the Somali regional state government, the people and their communities, clan and religious leaders, under the leadership of the Federal Ministry of Health in close collaboration with Polio partners like Rotary, UNICEF, USAID, CDC and Core Group (coalition of US and local NGOs) who have provided great technical and financial support in contributing to closing the outbreak in 6 months. WHO deployed more than 60 staff that have been fully engaged supporting the Somali Regional Health Bureau.
Myself, I traveled more than 15 times to the Somali region, to Jigjiga and Warder, to supervise my team, working with our regional partners. It has been a great fight and the efforts to end polio in the region very rewarding, I must say.
Capital: Rotary International has been very active in the fight against polio. How do you see the collaboration between WHO and RI?
Dr. M’Pele: My fellow partners from Rotary have contributed a lot, putting their hearts and souls to polio eradication at global level and in Ethiopia, especially in the Somali region. Since 1985, Rotary has provided a large amount of money to the fight against polio. But it’s not only been a financial contribution; Rotary has also been engaged in planning, implementing, monitoring and actively promoting social mobilization and advocacy work. Rotary is a prominent member of the International Technical Advisory Group and the Ethiopia Inter-agency Coordination Committee. Here, I would like to acknowledge the leadership of Dr. Tadesse Alemu, Chair of the National Polio Plus Committee, PDG Ezra Teshome and all Rotarians and Rotaracts for their wonderful contribution. Also, Mohamed Idris, my friend, who has been doing a great job, working and being everywhere with all of us.
Capital: What about the efforts of the Ethiopian Ministry of Health? How successful has it been, would you say?
Dr. M’Pele: Under the strong leadership of the Government, through the Ministry of Health, an aggressive response was implemented in Ethiopia to interrupt the transmission of the WPV outbreak in 2014. The Minister of Health, Dr. Kesete Birhan, supervised the coordination of the response, and also the two State Ministers, Dr Kebede Worku and Dr. Amire Aman, went to the field in the Somali Region to monitor regional and cross-border activities.
Overall, the National Improvement Immunization Plan 2014-2016 has boosted routine immunization programs and increased the coverage to reach every child, improving the health of all Ethiopian children. Ethiopia achieved MDG4 three years ahead of 2015, the projected target to reduce under five mortality. This is a remarkable achievement.
Capital: How do you assess the commitment of the different Regional Governments, as well as other countries where the disease is still prevalent?
Dr. M’Pele: The immense progress made by Ethiopia in improving the health of the people is due to the leadership and commitment of the government and people participation. They have understood that health is at the center of sustainable development. We should all be proud of this wonderful success story. The next 5-year health sector transformation plan will improve the quality of healthcare services and pay attention to equity so that health services are available for all Ethiopians.
Capital: You are celebrating with all your partners a Polio free Africa for over a year now, since August 2014.
Dr. M’Pele: The journey is almost over. We will continue the job till the end of polio, forever, and make it history.
Capital: What do you say needs to be done to maintain Ethiopia Polio free and to improve the situation of countries that remain affected by the disease such as Pakistan & Afghanistan? What are the challenges faced by Ethiopia to kick Polio out forever?
Dr. M’Pele: To sustain our efforts we must improve routine immunization, engaging all in better healthcare for our children, the future of the nation. In Ethiopia, the Expanded Immunization Programme is strengthening its capacity; introducing new vaccines, improving the cold chain, the transportation of vaccines from Addis to every Kebele and building the capacity of health workers. And here, I want to thank all health extension workers and the health development army for their exceptional contribution.
Of course, there is still a lot to be done and we are making sure that we are ready to face all challenges, working towards reaching every child including those within the pastoralist community. We are moving with them following clouds and rains, sometimes in very challenging environments, vaccinating all children in remote areas, including refugee camps with a very high influx of refugees from South Sudan and Somalia.
Capital: It is said that more social mobilization work needs to be done. How important is that exactly? Are you seeing changes in the way people perceive the disease and the continuous immunization campaigns carried out?
Dr. M’Pele: Social mobilization and communication are crucial for people not to be only the target of our interventions but actors of change for better health for every child, and for all. They are key to create awareness and to increase the demand of people to up-take immunization. They also help to get the support of communities, in terms of logistics, transportation, etc.
Community mobilization acts as an advocate of immunization, it helps in defaulter tracing, case identification, reporting and clarifying misconceptions on vaccination like oral polio.
Capital: The aim is to get every child vaccinated; do you think that is possible?
Dr. M’Pele: Of course, nothing is impossible. Impossible is not Ethiopian. We will make it and I strongly believe in the Government of this country and the people engaging in change for a better life. Let’s make a promise and see it again in 2025. I’m proud of working in Ethiopia and to be part of the interruption of WPV transmission in Ethiopia.