Polio immunization effort aims to reach all Syrian children

By Razan Rashidi

A young boy receives polio vaccine drops in Raqqa city, part of the UNICEF-supported national immunization campaign. © Ar-Raqqa Youth Volunteers organization/2013

A young boy receives polio vaccine drops in Raqqa city, part of the UNICEF-supported national immunization campaign. © Ar-Raqqa Youth Volunteers organization/2013

DAMASCUS, Syria, 19 December 2013 – The largest-ever immunization campaign in the Middle East has recently been underway, with the aim to vaccinate more than 23 million children against polio in the region, including in the Syrian Arab Republic, where 17 cases of polio were confirmed as of the end of November.

To prevent further spread of the virus, concerned parties have joined efforts to vaccinate all children under 5, whether they are living at home or displaced by the continuing conflict. Inside the Syrian Arab Republic, the plan is to reach more than 2 million children under 5 years old. 

“Reaching all children inside Syria – including those living in contested areas who were missed in an earlier campaign – is a priority for UNICEF and all other national partners,” said Youssouf Abdel Jelil, UNICEF Representative in Syria.

“How can we do nothing?”

In Raqqa, cold and stormy weather didn’t keep the city’s young volunteers from reaching every child they could reach.

“Those are our children – they represent us. How can we just do nothing?” said Abed Issa Al Muhammad, head of the Raqqa Youth Organization. “We are following the news of the campaign in all parts of Syria closely, because we know that all our efforts will be wasted if one child didn’t receive his or her dose.”

A UNICEF health facilitator administers polio vaccine to young boy in Deir ez-Zor.

A UNICEF health facilitator administers polio vaccine to young boy in Deir ez-Zor.

The organization has more than 30 young people dedicating their time and hard work in very difficult circumstances.

“Some families don’t have the means to reach to the health centres that are still functioning,” said one of the volunteers. “So we reach them carrying a better future for their children.”

“All the parents we met were seeking the vaccine,” said Mr. Al Muhammad. “They realize how crucial and important it is for the future of their young ones.”

The campaign also engages local health workers, as they are trusted in their communities. Some families donated fuel to the youth organization to reach villages and towns across the Raqqa governorate.

Critical time

“It is a very critical time for UNICEF and all partners, but stories and examples from across the country proving community commitment and awareness give us hope,” said Dr. Iman Bahnasi, UNICEF Health Specialist and manager of the polio response campaign.

In Deir ez-Zor, an area that has seen heavy fighting for almost two years, the local community is playing a leading role in vaccinating children. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, UNICEF supports local NGOs and health facilities in order to reach every child under 5.

“We have reports indicating that more than 80,000 children were vaccinated in Deir ez-Zor governorate, which has the highest number of confirmed polio cases” said Dr. Bahnasi. “It is not easy to monitor and get accurate reports on the implementation of the campaign, but we work closely with the Syrian Ministry of Health to receive the most accurate figures.”

Many children in Syria remain inaccessible, particularly those trapped in sealed-off areas or living in areas of conflict.

The right of all children

Over the coming months, UNICEF plans to deliver 10 million doses of polio vaccine to Syria. The first shipment of 2 million doses arrived in Damascus in late November. Vaccinations will be provided at fixed sites at populous locations or by going from house to house, depending on security and access conditions. The activities are carried out by national and local health authorities with the support of UNICEF, WHO, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other partners.

“All Syrian children must be reached with vaccine, no matter where they are,” said Mr. Jelil. “All children have the right to such protection, and the provision of health care must remain neutral, no matter what the context.”

See more photos of the immunization campaign in Syria.