BAGHDAD - Despite serious ongoing violence in Iraq, the government and international aid agencies started a major immunisation drive on Sunday to avert an outbreak of measles.
“One million children have no immunity to measles - more than enough to spark a dangerous outbreak in which many children could die or be left with lasting disabilities,” Claire Hajaj, UNICEF’s chief of communications at its Iraq Support Centre in Amman (ISCA).
“The purpose of the campaign is to close this immunity gap and protect children’s health. Measles also make children far more likely to die from other common illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia - so it is critical to prevent measles cases if possible,” she added.
The US $10 million, two-week campaign is being led by the Iraqi Ministry of Health with support from UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and from the European Commission. It hopes to reach 3.9 million Iraqi children aged between one and five with the combined MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.
MMR vaccination has been remarkably successful in Iraq to date, reducing measles cases nearly 20-fold - from just over 9,000 cases in 2004 to fewer than 500 in 2006, according to UNICEF. However, UNICEF and WHO said that in the country’s current condition, many cases may go unreported.
Previously, vaccinators have been unable to reach all children in Iraq because of insecurity, particularly in restive areas. UNICEF and WHO are particularly concerned about safety in Anbar, Baghdad and Diyala provinces. This time, vaccinators are employing different strategies to reach children.
“UNICEF is providing transport to over 2,000 vaccinator teams to help them move in insecure or remote areas. In some areas the vaccinators will not travel house to house but will operate from fixed posts to help ensure their safety,” said Hajaj.
“Special plans are also being made to send vaccinators to areas with many IDPs [internally displaced people]. But in the end, vaccinators’ safety depends on the will of the community to protect them and help their mission. UNICEF has also been supporting efforts to engage local leaders to support the vaccination drive and help vaccinators pass unhindered to do their job,” Hajaj added.
Muhammad Obaidi, media officer for the secretary of health in Anbar province, said he was concerned for the safety of vaccinators in dangerous areas.
“We have been trying to speak with the representatives of all the fighting groups in these hot spot areas - as well as the military and the local population - to guarantee that vaccinators can reach children safely. But nowadays we should be careful all the time and not trust anybody as we never know with whom we are dealing,” Obaidi said.
Vaccinators said they were scared of encountering violence in the course of the immunisation campaign but that their overwhelming sense of humanitarian duty to save Iraqi children kept them optimistic.
“The violence is general and targeting everyone, especially in some hot spot areas but someone has to save those children. This campaign can save the lives of millions. This is a duty that should be done by all Iraqis and not only vaccinators,” said one of the vaccinators, who requested anonymity for security reasons.