The Somali sengi (Galegeeska revoilii), a tiny member of the elephant shrew family, has been considered extinct for the last 50 years. However, new sightings in Somalia and Djibouti show that the species isn’t lost after all.
NPR reports that the shrew has made a comeback in both countries after more than half a century of absence — the last official record of one being spotted comes from 1968. Even more impressive is that the species isn’t native to the country of Djibouti.
Small but kicking
“It’s a teeny, tiny relative of an aardvark and an elephant that’s the size of a mouse,” Steven Heritage, a researcher from Duke University who has been looking for the creature, told NPR.
“We know now that it is for sure a rock-dwelling Sengi. We know that it has foot-drumming behavior as one of its communication behaviors. So we have some basic knowledge now.”
Being considered extinct for such a long time means that researchers don’t really know a lot about the species. With its reappearance, however, that lack of understanding might be addressed — as well as the questions regarding how this species stayed hidden for so long.
While the spotting is definitely good news for the species — it can’t be extinct yet if it’s right there — we have no idea of the health of the species. Without reliable population figures, we simply can’t know if the shrew is, in fact, on the verge of disappearing completely. Being spotted outside of its native range is definitely encouraging, but not enough on its own to point to a recovery.
What we do know is that the shrew is good at keeping a low profile. So in the future, researchers will need to be extra crafty in order to gain accurate data on the shrews’ health, habits, and dietary preferences. From there, they can piece together a snapshot of their entire species’s health, and decide whether conservation efforts are needed to keep it from going extinct.
In the age defined by a pandemic, you’d be surprised to find out that someone hasn’t heard about the outbreak. But some pretty large groups of people haven’t.
We’re almost half-year into the most disruptive event most of us have ever lived through. Given how much it impacted our lives, how it holds headlines, you’d think that everyone heard about the coronavirus by now.
And yet, migrants arriving in Somalia are surprised to hear United Nations workers tell them of COVID-19. A year-long internet blackout in the states of Rakhine and Chin in Myanmar, imposed by the government amidst a conflict with the Arakan Army, a local insurgent group, means that many people there likely haven’t heard about the pandemic, either.
“We’ve been interviewing migrants for many years,” said Celeste Sanchez Bean, a program manager with the U.N. migration agency based in Somalia, toAssociated Press (AP). “I’m not super shocked that levels of awareness of the coronavirus are still very low.”
Monitors for the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. migration agency keep watch over the border of Somalia, as it lays right in the middle of some of the world’s most dangerous routes — across the Red Sea, through Yemen into rich Gulf countries.
As part of this effort, they question migrants on their origin, destination, and reason for travelling, so they can spot potential traffickers or other evil-doers. Since the outbreak, they’ve also started asking them whether they’re aware of the coronavirus.
Bean explained that in the week ending June 20, 51% of the 3,471 people tracked said they had never heard of COVID-19. The percentage of people who hadn’t heard of it was 88% in the early weeks of the pandemic.
Most people going this way are young men from rural Ethiopia with no education and with generally poor internet access. Some were not even aware Yemen was engulfed in a war despite the fact that they were going that way.
Such findings showcase how hard it may be for relatively remote populations to even be aware that there’s a pandemic going on. With this in mind, co-coordinating a truly global response to what is a very much global problem seems hopeful at best. Still, the U.N. is working on spreading the word. Refugees are given a basic rundown of the latest events, the symptoms to watch out for, and are educated on how to keep themselves safe.
Myanmar, meanwhile, doesn’t have the connection issues of Ethiopia — but it does have a local insurgency problem.
Authorities imposed an Internet shutdown in nine specific areas and townships in Rakhine and Chin back in June 2019. The step was taken over concerns that the insurgent Arakan Army (which wants more autonomy for Rakhine’s Buddhist population) might be using mobile internet to organize and “target the army”, according to Bussiness Insider. Rakhine is home to the Rohingya Muslim population. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled persecution into neighboring states.
The shutdown has since been lifted from one of these towns but remains in effect in the other eight.
“We will restore internet service if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law,” a government official said as the shutdown was extended from June to August this year.
Meanwhile, humanitarian workers in these regions are reporting that whole communities are unaware that there’s a pandemic at all. AP cites Htoot May, an MP for the Arakan National League for Democracy in Myanmar’s parliament, as saying that the has to explain the pandemic to people “from the beginning”, telling them about social distancing and proper hand hygiene.
Such cases show that we still live in a world where the flow of information can become politicized, or is simply insufficient to keep everybody in the loop.
A pandemic, especially one like the COVID-19 outbreak for which we have no natural defenses, is ultimately a global issue. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ with highly infectious diseases. As long as communities don’t know that there’s a threat, they’ll be completely vulnerable. And if they are left unprotected, there’s always the risk of a new wave taking place.
We all are very much failing people such as those in Myanmar and Africa during this pandemic.
Free access to and flow of information is vial in such cases, which makes the fact that some people are still unaware of the pandemic surprising, but also very worrying.
Thanks to a large vaccination and immunization campaign, Somalia has had no cases of polio in the past three years and has been declared polio-free by the UN. Now, just three countries with polio remain.
Somali boy receives a polio vaccination. Image credits: Andrew W. McGalliard / US DoD.
The polio vaccine was introduced in 1955. There were over 28,000 confirmed cases that year, though the real number of people infected with the diseases was certainly much larger (since 99% of people have no symptoms at all). The number went down dramatically. By 1988, polio cases were confined to only some areas of the world. In an all-out effort to eradicate the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the Rotary Foundation, focused on these areas — and they had noticeable success. They managed to reduce the number of annual diagnosed cases to 37 confirmed cases in 2016. We’re inching closer to truly wiping the disease, and Somalia can now enter the large club of polio-free countries.
The head of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean, which covers Somalia, Mohamed Fiqi said that all this is done due to the massive vaccination campaign and the international support received by Somalia.
“As the world edges closer to eradicating polio, keeping alert in countries that have high risk of polio importation like Somalia is more of priority than ever,” Fiqi said.
“As we move forward, the polio programme in Somalia needs to continue to work to maintain and improve the level of population immunity against polio through target vaccination campaign and strengthening of the routine immunisation services and infrastructure,” Fiqi added.
According to the WHO, the country recorded its last polio case in 2014, which technically means that it’s polio-free. But Somalia still remains vulnerable to importing the virus. At the moment, only three countries still report new polio cases: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. In Nigeria, there has yet to be a single case in 2017. There was also an outbreak in Syria, the first there in 14 years, largely due to the civil war which prevented vaccination campaigns. If these campaigns remain on course, it’s easy to see a future where polio is truly eradicated, joining the likes of smallpox and rinderpest.
The effectiveness of the vaccination campaign becomes even more impressive when you consider that in Somalia, it only started 20 years ago. WHO and UNICEF conducted the first subnational immunizations days in Somalia in 1997 and the first national immunization days covering the entire country in 1998. Implementation of a house-to-house strategy was started in 1999. However, Somalia’s not in the clear when it comes to infectious diseases.
This announcement comes on the back of the worst outbreak of measles the country has seen in years. Somalia is also battling an outbreak of acute watery diarrhoea/cholera that started in January. Still, the polio infrastructure was critical in enabling the government to provide support in these outbreaks. It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The last natural smallpox case was also in Somalia, on 26 October 1977.