From smallpox victim to polio eradication advocate

Ali Maow Maalin
Ali Maow Maalin
WHO

Ali Maow Maalin of Somalia died suddenly at the age of 59 last week. He was the last person infected with smallpox in the world.

What he did with his life after the infection is what makes Maalin’s story truly remarkable. He took his experience and set his sights on eradicating polio.

Maalin refused the smallpox vaccine when he was younger because he feared needles. Refusing the vaccine is why he contracted smallpox while driving to a clinic with an infected family. He explained to the Boston Globe’s John Donnelly in 2006:

”I was scared of being vaccinated then. It looked like the shot hurt,” said Mo’allim, 48, who was sick for 50 days with smallpox but recovered completely. ”Now when I meet parents who refuse to give their children the polio vaccine, I tell them my story. I tell them how important these vaccines are. I tell them not to do something foolish like me.”

“He would always say, ‘I’m the last smallpox case in the world. I want to help ensure my country will not be last in stopping polio,’ ” Dr. Debesay Mulugeta, who leads polio eradication efforts in Somalia, said the the NPR Shots Blog.

So in 2004, Maalin officially became a polio vaccinator. He organized volunteers, went door to door immunizing children and helped to convince families the vaccine was safe.

At the time, vaccinating kids in southern Somalia was a dangerous job. Several militia groups were fighting each other, and some vaccinators were even shot at. Many militia leaders thought the vaccine wasn’t safe, so Maalin would share his own experience with smallpox and change their minds.

Polio’s days are numbered. Cases are down and experts say the world is on track to eradicate polio by 2015. Unfortunately for Maalin, malaria claimed his life before he could see his dream of a polio-free world achieved.

Last year, there were just 223 cases of polio worldwide. Health leaders hope to have that number down to zero by 2015.

But this spring, polio began to make a comeback in Somalia. A handful of children were paralyzed by the virus in May; since then, Somalia has recorded more than 70 cases.

So Maalin went back to work and started organizing immunization campaigns in one of the most turbulent regions of Somalia. “The area where he worked was not easy because militia controlled access to it,” Mulugeta says.

His goal was to see that Somalia was not the last place in the world to have polio.

“Somalia was the last country with smallpox. I wanted to help ensure that we would not be the last place with polio too,” he said to the BBC when Somalia eradicated polio in 2008.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.