Tackling childhood diseases across Sudan
The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan in 2005 provided an historic opportunity to create a new reality for the country’s children, most of whom have known nothing but conflict, displacement and isolation. The impact of decades of civil war upon Sudan’s youngest generation is starkly underlined by the country’s alarming mortality statistics, with hundreds of children under the age of five dying every day, mostly due to preventable illnesses.
In keeping with a new sense of rebuilding, and in spite of the ongoing conflict in Darfur, UNICEF has remained committed to addressing the key Millennium Development Goals for children, including that of reducing mortality and eliminating childhood diseases, through its humanitarian action.
In Bentiu, in Southern Sudan, during June 2006, that commitment was turned into action, leaving a lasting impact upon three-year old Sarah. Sarah represents the millionth child to be immunized against measles in Southern Sudan. An ongoing Mass Measles Campaign (MMC) was launched by the Government of Southern Sudan Ministry of Health, UNICEF and WHO in November 2005, with a goal of reaching 4.5 million children in all ten states of Southern Sudan. UNICEF is working with dozens of NGO partners and communities to achieve this public health breakthrough, with the actual vaccination campaign following months of advocacy and planning with authorities and communities and extensive training.
Bentiu sits on one side of a river that marked the front line during the civil war; since the peace agreement, residents say that they feel more free, hopeful that peace will bring development with it. With the measles campaign in Bentiu coinciding with the Day of the African Child, a celebratory mood has taken over the medical centre, as children gather to sing and mingle with local officials. The music breaks the stifling heat and humidity that is characteristic of Southern Sudan, as children make their way across the largely marshy land, broken only by tukuls – small mud and thatch huts – before proceedings officially get under way with one nine-year-old boy singing about the war and the prospects created by the new peace. A respectful silence falls over the crowd as he finishes his song, and then young Sarah comes forward to receive her vaccination.
She is to be the first of about 46,500 children targeted in and around Bentiu, in an effort that has taken on formidable logistical challenges and an unpredictable security situation. During the long civil war, less than 20 per cent of children in Southern Sudan were protected against measles due to a lack of health services and insecurity; the threat of the disease is compounded by the region’s high malnutrition rates and often abysmal living conditions. The campaign will not only protect millions of children from the disease; it is also adding skilled workers to the health system. Hundreds of vaccinators and auxiliary staff have been trained and brought back to work. A system of refrigerators and icepack boxes for storing vaccines, has also been built up and will remain in place to boost routine immunization services.
In Darfur, in north-western Sudan, measles has also been the focus of major immunization efforts throughout 2006. In July alone, more than 180,035 children aged 9 months to 15 years were vaccinated in West Darfur with support from UNICEF – 75 per cent of the targeted population. This preceded a planned second round of National Immunization Days to be undertaken in rebel-held areas of Jebel Marra in South Darfur. The impact of this measles drive is underlined by the notable reduction in the number of cases being reported: in the first half of 2006, only 288 cases of measles were recorded in the north of Sudan, compared to more than 900 in the same period in 2005.
After so many years of loss, there is now a sense of determination to hold onto the prospects of peace and rebuilding in Sudan. Nine-year-old Latjor Kong, queuing up for his measles jab in Bentiu, is all too ready to face the needle and syringe. “I know it will hurt my arm, but measles is bad,” he explains simply. “You feel bad and then you can die.”
For the children who have lived through Sudan’s years of war, falling victim to preventable illness is simply unthinkable.
© UNICEF Sudan/2006