In Syria, UNICEF supports vaccination campaign for children

By Razan Rashidi

Damascus, 27 October 2013 — “Nurses will visit the school and give you vaccines that will protect you from disease and sickness,” announces Rihab to her sixth-grade students at the end of the school day. It is a scene repeated in thousands of classrooms in Syria ahead of a vaccination campaign that started 20 October. 

A girl student is all smiles after she received an MMR vaccination at a Damascus school. ©UNICEF/Syria-2013/Rashidi

A girl student is all smiles after she received an MMR vaccination at a Damascus school. ©UNICEF/Syria-2013/Rashidi

One of Rihab’s students, Aya (11) shared the news with her mother when she got home. Aya’s mother encouraged her daughter and told her that she didn’t even cry when she had received an injection as a baby.

Back at school, Aya proudly recounted the story while uncovering her arm, ready to be vaccinated: “I am not afraid of the injection,” says Aya. “Mother and Miss Rihab say it is good for me.”

Up to 2.4 million children across Syria will be protected from killer diseases during a two-part vaccination campaign at schools and at health centres through a series of Child Health Days.

“The on-going conflict in Syria has affected more than 3 million children, with around 2 million children displaced, many living in cramped and unsanitary conditions where disease can easily spread,” said Youssouf Abdel-Jelil, Representative at UNICEF Syria.

“The health system has been significantly affected, including the operation of the routine immunization programme, meaning that some children have not received their vaccinations.”

The first part of the vaccination campaign kicked off in schools on 20 October, where 800,000 children in grades 5-9 (10-14 years of age) will be given Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Two girls at a school in Damascus wait their turn to receive vaccinations as part of a UNICEF-supported campaign. © UNICEF/Syria-2013/Rashidi

Two girls at a school in Damascus wait their turn to receive vaccinations as part of a UNICEF-supported campaign. © UNICEF/Syria-2013/Rashidi

A further 1.6 million children, aged under five years of age, will be vaccinated during a catch-up vaccination campaign, which will run for two weeks from 24 October. MMR will be given to children who missed it during the first round; polio vaccine will be given to all children regardless of their previous doses, in addition to routine vaccinations for the drop-outs. Children under five will also receive a Vitamin A supplement.

UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Health-led campaign through the provision of cold chain equipment, syringes, safety boxes, vaccination cards, and communication materials. In addition, a cargo plane arrived in Beirut recently carrying 265,000 doses of MMR vaccine to replenish Ministry supplies used in the campaign. WHO is also supporting the campaign.

Kuwait has generously supported the purchase of essential life-saving vaccines for Syria and the provision of cold-chain equipment, including cold rooms.

One of the health workers vaccinating children on the first day of the school campaign, Sawsan Al Hamwi, has been working in immunization for 18 years. While students lined up to be vaccinated and receive booster vitamins, Sawson explained that she feels proud of her work, which she considers important for the future of Syria.

Syria’s health system has been significantly affected, including the operation of the routine immunization programmes. According to official figures from July 2013, 60 per cent of public hospitals and 34 per cent of health centres have been damaged. Some children have not received their vaccinations, whether through lack of vaccines in hot areas, or lack of access to health centres.

A sixth grade boy at a Damascus school gets booster Vitamin A, having just received an MMR vaccination during a UNICEF-supported vaccination campaign. © UNICEF/Syria-2013/Rashidi

A sixth grade boy at a Damascus school gets booster Vitamin A, having just received an MMR vaccination during a UNICEF-supported vaccination campaign. © UNICEF/Syria-2013/Rashidi

Head of the National Immunization Programme, Nidal Abu Rasheed, says that the school campaign comes as a reaction to the increasing number of measles cases and the decrease of the percentage of routine immunization for 2012-2013. “The coverage rate is 60 per cent according to ministry records,” she says.

Continued fighting and an ever-changing security situation create unique challenges to reach all children across Syria. During the Child Health Days, UNICEF will also work with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to reach high-risk children across lines with life-saving vaccinations.

UNICEF continues to advocate at the national level for humanitarian access to all children in need in Syria, no matter their location.