Emergency vaccination targets 90,000 children in West Sumatra quake zones
By Lely Djuhari
PARIAMAN, Indonesia, 30 October, 2009 — Under the shade of a tarpaulin, a group of young babies are comforted by their mothers, having been just inoculated with life-saving vaccines.
The mothers and infants had gathered at a makeshift health clinic, which also doubled as an emergency relief post or “posko gempa”, in a clearing still littered with debris from the earthquake that hit this area on 30 September.
“Let’s make sure our neighbour comes,” said Susilawati, mother of Sonia and Soneka. She brought her twins to the vaccination drive after hearing a megaphone announcement by her local mosque. “Isn’t her baby between nine months and five years? He’ll need a measles jab.”
A bright yellow poster has been hung over the clinic’s entrance, displaying the national cartoon mascot “Si Imun” warning mothers of the dangers of measles. The notice emphasized that immunization was provided free of charge, as are polio vaccinations and vitamin A supplements.
During the first weeks since the earthquake that struck West Sumatra, UNICEF Indonesia has supported a measles vaccination campaign targeting 90,000 children throughout the region. As part of the UNICEF-supported programme, leaflets have been distributed and advertisements have been printed in local newspapers and aired on radio stations.
Angela Kearney, UNICEF’s Country Representative in Indonesia, explained the rationale behind the campaign. “Immunizing children against measles in emergencies is among the most cost-effective preventive public health measures,” she says. “In areas affected by natural disasters, infection rates soar because damage to infrastructure and the break-down of health services interrupt routine immunization.”
More than half of some 90 health centres in four quake-stricken districts reported heavy to light damage which has affected their cold chain system. Essential equipment at the village health centres such as refrigerators and cool boxes that help prevent vaccine spoilage are not working or could not be accessed because of rubble.
This means vaccines needed to be transported directly from the provincial and district health offices to the villages, raising operational costs. UNICEF is also stepping in to help fund gaps here and to ensure that the vaccines get to the children.
Health workers working round the clock to provide first aid to survivors now have the additional task of organizing vaccination teams who make lists of mothers and babies and fan out to the villages in Padang city, Pariaman city, Padang Pariaman and Agam districts.
“We cannot wait for mothers to come to the health centres,” said Dr. Irene, the immunization chief at the provincial health office, whose own house was reduced to rubble by the earthquake. “I have made a commitment not to rest until we have gone out and visited all these villagers.”
Dr. Irene tells every mother she meets how the airborne measles virus can infect children and leave them with life-long disabilities – including blindness, deafness or brain damage.
“Measles vaccination in emergencies has proven to be extremely effective to prevent outbreaks and cause further deaths after a natural disaster. Those deaths are an unneccesary waste of young lives when we have the solution at our fingertips.”“Measles vaccination in emergencies has proven to be extremely effective to prevent outbreaks and cause further deaths after a natural disaster,” said UNICEF’s Dr. Vinod Bura who flew into West Sumatra to monitor the campaign. “Those deaths are an unneccesary waste of young lives when we have the solution at our fingertips.”
While significant progress has been made in recent years to improve routine immunization coverage, Indonesia still ranks fourth amongst countries with a large number of un- or partially vaccinated children, based on joint estimates by WHO and UNICEF. Ensuring that earthquakes – a regular phenomena here in the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ – do not stand in the way of immunization is at the heart.