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New polio drive to protect Iraqi children


Another massive effort begins today to deliver a critical vaccine to as many Iraqi children under five years old as possible - 4.8 million children in total - even in the country’s most insecure and remote areas.

Almost 20,000 vaccinators will participate in the house-to-house drive, set to last five days. Their goal: to reach as many of Iraq’s under fives as possible with the oral polio vaccine (OPV), wherever they live, traveling by boat, car and on foot; Teams will also be working in every vaccination hospital and Primary Health Care Centre across the country.

OPV protects children against polio, a highly infectious and incurable paralytic disease that mostly affects the young. The current immunization campaign is part of Iraq’s ongoing polio eradication effort, which has kept Iraq polio-free since 2000, with support from UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). Conflict and insecurity have regrettably eroded Iraq’s routine health services, making mass campaigns such as this critical to maintain immunity against infectious diseases.

But the challenges facing this campaign’s organizers and vaccinators are greater than ever. During the last campaign, in December 2006, only half as many children were immunized in parts of Baghdad and Diyala, as against the national average of 91 per cent. Reaching the most vulnerable and displaced children this time round is critical.

“Despite an incredibly high national coverage rate for these campaigns in the challenging environment within Iraq, we are committed to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not miss out,” said Roger Wright, UNICEF Special Representative for Iraq. “Over the next week, protecting vaccinators and enabling them to reach displaced children and those living in Iraq’s camps and conflict areas must be given top priority.”

Dr. Naeema Al-Ghasser, WHO Representative for Iraq, also praised the laudable efforts of the Ministry of Health and the vaccinators to ensure that a high quality campaign goes ahead. “This is a testament to the commitment and ability of Iraq’s health workers and families to protect children’s health, even under the most difficult conditions,” she said. “It is crucial that we maintain Iraq’s success in driving out polio by ensuring this vaccine reaches all children across the country.”

As well as posing risks to vaccinators, Iraq’s ongoing conflict has placed additional burdens on the “cold chain” network, which vaccines require to keep them safe and effective. Electricity shortages and insecurity have particularly affected the National Vaccine and Sera Institute in Baghdad - the central storage facility for vaccines for the whole of Iraq. The polio campaign was nearly delayed when access to the facility was compromised recently due to increased security measures in the area.

Last week, local health officials supported by UNICEF and WHO were successfully able to negotiate the removal and distribution of 10 million doses of OPV l, enabling the campaign to proceed on schedule.

Other WHO and UNICEF support to this campaign includes helping the government with planning and management, providing transport for vaccinator teams and assisting the engagement of local communities, as well as providing OPV to re-stock Iraq’s supplies. The European Commission has generously provided $4.25 million to UNICEF and WHO to support the drive.

“These campaigns are a major humanitarian effort to protect Iraq’s children,” Wright said. “Health workers need the full support of everyone in the country to succeed.”


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