Health workers say that al-Shabaab, a rebel group linked to al-Qaeda, have discouraged many parents from getting their children inoculated against polio, a disease that is an incipient problem in the Horn of Africa nation which is plagued by armed conflict and disease.
The extremists have been pushed out of virtually all of Somalia’s cities and face continued military pressure from African Union and government troops. Health workers are gaining access to more children to give the life-saving polio vaccine. But some mothers and fathers are refusing the inoculation, apparently heeding the advice of the Islamic militants who warn that the vaccination exercise is part of a foreign conspiracy to kill or weaken their offspring.
Vaccination workers who went from door to door in the capital Mogadishu were turned away by some parents who often did not state why they objected to the vaccination. One man told the workers to leave immediately because they were carrying “toxic things”.
Al-Shabaab militants are spreading rumours against the polio vaccine in communities where they still have some influence, alleging the vaccine can make girls barren and that it is manufactured in Christian countries, said a senior United Nations health worker in Somalia, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorised to speak about the vaccination programme.
Al-Shabaab did not respond to questions about the allegations that it is spreading rumours against the vaccination campaign.
“Al-Shabaab is paranoid about potential infiltration by spy agencies disguised as humanitarian workers. That’s probably a principal reason for discouraging vaccination,” said Abdi Aynte, the director of the Somali-based think-tank Heritage Institute for Policy Studies.
Somali government officials say the numbers of parents who reject the immunisation campaign are far fewer than those embracing it, but health workers do not want to leave any unvaccinated. They warn that it is important for every child to get the polio vaccine in order to eradicate in Somalia the disease that causes limb paralysis and can be fatal.
“It’s a big challenge,” said Safiyo Mohamed, a vaccination worker in Mogadishu. She said in rejecting the vaccine some families had brought up the case in Libya where foreign health workers faced charges of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV in the 1990s.
The polio vaccine, which is administered orally, is recommended for children aged ten and under.