By Miriam Azar
UNICEF Lebanon, with the Ministry of Public Health, local NGO Beyond Association, WHO and UNHCR, is launching Summer Immunization Weeks for a week each in July, August and September. The accelerated routine immunization campaign against ten preventable contagious diseases, including measles, tetanus and polio, is targeting 150,000 children under 5 years of age in localities with the lowest immunization coverage and in informal tented settlements, regardless of the children’s nationality. The aim is to ensure that all children have an opportunity to receive vaccinations through the campaigns.
BEIRUT, Lebanon, 23 July 2014 – “On your mark, get set, go!” A group of Syrian refugee children burst across the starting line on the thin strip of fresh tarmac in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, running as fast as they can. Girls and boys bearing the slogan ‘To Immunize and Protect Every Child’ whizz past mothers and younger siblings watching the launch of Immunization Week.
One of these mothers is Fatmi, who watches the race holding her youngest son, Muatassim.
Fatmi and her four children have been living in a tented settlement in eastern Lebanon since September. Her husband is missing in the Syrian Arab Republic; the family depend on Fatmi’s unemployed brother and on United Nations assistance (as registered refugees).
The older three children had their vaccinations back home. Muatassim is two and a half years old, born after the crisis broke out. He has been vaccinated once, in Lebanon.
Fatmi cannot afford to go to a health clinic, so she relies on mobile medical units and vaccination teams that come to the settlement offering free health care. The mobile medical units are an extension of the Ministry of Public Health services, provided by NGO partners with the support of United Nations agencies, including UNICEF.
And members of the community rely on events like today’s race to learn about health issues, and about the visits. “These activities are a way of raising health awareness among children, who then educate their parents on the importance of immunization,” says Joe Awad, president of UNICEF’s Lebanese NGO partner Beyond Association. “The approach gives children self-confidence; at the same time, we involve communities in the preparations of the vaccination campaign.”
Hakawati draws an audience
In another large informal tented settlement in which 700 Syrian refugee families shelter, a crowd has gathered. The Hakawati, or storyteller – himself a Syrian refugee – is animating a story to raise awareness among the community about the urgency of vaccinating children.
A curious 8-year-old girl emerges from the crowd, smiling warmly. She introduces herself as Amina, and invites us to her family tent, where her mother Aisha and eight siblings sit on the barren floor.
Aisha also relies on the information provided through awareness sessions like the Hakawati’s. She tells us that she gets her children vaccinated only when a mobile health team comes to the settlement. Otherwise, she doesn’t know where to go.
Reaching all children, everywhere
The health of Fatmi’s and Aisha’s children depends on the services and the immunization campaigns – along with information about how to access them. The involvement of communities is crucial in stopping the spread of disease and in saving children’s lives.
It is difficult for contagious disease to spread when a high percentage of the population has been vaccinated. Mass immunization is essential in conditions in which there is an increased risk of illness because of poor quality of water, over-crowdedness, a lack of sanitation facilities, and inadequate nutrition.
That is why UNICEF, the Ministry of Public Health, UNHCR and the NGO Beyond Association are targeting the most vulnerable families, including those living in localities at highest risk, and at lowest reported immunization coverage – families like Fatmi’s and Aisha’s. And that is why they are reaching families through mobile health clinics and by conducting immunization campaigns – and spreading information about these services throughout the communities.
They want to reach every last child.
Multiple rounds of vaccination are needed for the same child, especially for polio, for which children at risk need several doses to ensure the virus is prevented from spreading in the region. For 2014, UNICEF Lebanon requires $36.2 million for its Health and Nutrition programme. In July 2014, the funding gap was $19.2 million.