BUJUMBURA, 19 June 2002 - The National Immunization Days for Measles and Polio were launched on Monday with a call by the Vice President's wife, Mrs. Oda Ndayizeye, for all mothers to protect the lives of their children by having them vaccinated. This campaign, which is taking place 17-28 June and 23-26 July, seeks to vaccinate 3.3 million children between the ages of 9 months and 14 years against measles and 627,720 children between 0-59 months against polio.
The campaign also aims to provide 1.2 million children between 6-59 months with Vitamin A supplements, to help strengthen their immune systems.
"It takes an incredible effort by the people, the government and the international community to vaccinate almost half of the population in a country where most people are out of the reach of any form of transportation or communication other than their feet and their voices," said UNICEF Health Officer Daniel Verna. To motivate mothers and children to walk as many as 10 kilometres to one of the 990 vaccination sites that have been set around the country, messages were passed through thousands of administrators and community workers as well as through the radio and television announcements.
In addition to the logistical challenges, children and mothers also risk to be kept from vaccination centers by the continuing fighting, prompting the UN Heads of Agency to call for a temporary cease-fire during both rounds of the campaign. This call for Days of Tranquillity is being supported by a widely disseminated radio message from the children themselves: "We are the future of Burundi. Observe a temporary truce and let us live," they say.
"I feel so much better now that I know they will be protected, at least against measles," a tired mother explained yesterday while holding on to her three and one-year old daughters. "Even though I live far away, I did not have a problem coming to the vaccination center because I have been taking shelter close to this spot after fighting made me flee my home a few days ago."
Immunization coverage rates have been falling in Burundi since the conflict began in 1993, with measles coverage reaching only 54 percent in 2001. In 2000, over 20,000 children suffered from a serious measles epidemic. An underdeveloped health system and difficulty accessing much of the population have led to these low vaccination rates, making it necessary to vaccinate such a large percentage of the population during the current campaign.
A nine year old boy carrying his pink vaccination card and holding his arm where he had just received the measles vaccine seemed convinced that he had done the right thing. "I don't want to look like that kid!", he exclaimed, referring to another child that he had seen with measles.
Measles attacks the immune system and skin surfaces (gut, cornea and lungs) and can lead to respiratory infections, diarrhoea and blindness. Measles can cause children with weak immune systems to die, and thus poses a great threat to the 50 percent of Burundian children who suffer from chronic malnutrition.
The recent presence of the wildpolio virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), means that it could still be transmitted to Burundian children over the country's shared border. Over 600,000 children in eight provinces that either border the DRC or have registered low coverage rates are expected to receive the oral polio vaccine.
"A campaign of this size contributes to the prevention of measles epidemics and to eradicating polio worldwide, thus saving the lives of Burundian children," said the ECHO Representative in Burundi. ECHO, the Humanitarian Aid Office of the European Commission, is covering most of the cost of this operation with a contribution of over € 1.7 million.
As part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and the Measles Initiative, this campaign aims to contribute to the eradication of polio worldwide by the end of 2005 and reduce the number of deaths due to measles by half by 2005. In Burundi, these two initiatives, and efforts to reinforce routine immunization, are being jointly carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Rotary International with the support of European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO), USAID Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Belgian Cooperation and the Norwegian Government.
"This campaign will send a message to the people of Burundi of what is possible when we work together. Its success depends upon the collaboration of thousands of communities, millions of children, the government and the armed men fighting on the ground," said UNICEF Representative, Malick Séne. "It is an opportunity to give hope to the next generation - an opportunity to give each Burundian child a chance to live."
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For further information, please contact:
Susanna Campbell or Sara Johansson, UNICEF Burundi, +257-226-888