Dedicated Healthworkers and Volunteers Help Protect 63 Million Children against Measles in Pakistan
By Fatima Raja
MULTAN, Punjab Province, 17 March 2008 – In a small, cool classroom in the ancient city of Multan, Samana Khan smiles reassuringly at a little girl. "What is your name?" she asks, and rolls up the girl's sleeve. "Mahnoor," the girl whispers, looking nervously at the syringe. She winces as the needle enters and Ms Khan murmurs reassuringly: "Hush, Mahnoor is such a brave girl. See, that was all! Now go back to class."
Mahnoor is one of 63 million Pakistani children between 9 months and 13 years of age who are being vaccinated in the world's largest measles campaign, led by the Government of Pakistan and supported by UNICEF and WHO, blanketing the country in 2007–2008. Four phases of this campaign have been completed. The Fifth and final phase, running from March to April 2008, is intended to vaccinate more than 34 million children in the most populous Punjab Province as well as Islamabad.
Measles is one of the leading causes of death amongst children worldwide. In Pakistan, about 2.1 million cases of measles occur every year. Over 21,000 children die from measles and its complications annually, and about 12,000 of them are from Punjab. Though this virulent disease can be easily prevented through routine immunisation, a third of children in Pakistan do not receive measles vaccination and many others have not developed full immunity. This country-wide campaign hopes to target both groups.
Weeks of intensive awareness-raising preceded the campaign. Meetings with religious leaders, teachers and the local government were supplemented by media and poster campaigns. Nearly 66,000 doctors, vaccinators, Lady Health Workers and Volunteers have been trained for the campaign in Punjab province. Vaccinations are carried out at schools and health centres. Mobile teams also establish temporary sites in communities, and volunteers visit homes to encourage families to bring children to be vaccinated.
In nearby Afsharabad neighbourhood, Akhtar Bibi is one of the volunteers going door to door, asking parents to take their children for vaccination. Following a hand-drawn map of the area's narrow alleys, she goes from house to house, knocking on the door and asking if there are any children in the target age group. If the children are present at home, she asks parents to take them to an immunisation centre nearby.
"I wanted to have my children vaccinated. I saw on television how it will help them lead a healthier life. I want only the best for my daughters," says Parveen Bibi.
When Akhtar Bibi knocks on a door, Parveen Bibi answers. Married to a sanitary worker and the mother of two, she is pleased to hear that the measles campaign has come to her area. Gathering all the children in her extended family, she shepherds them towards the vaccination centre, where scores of people are already standing in line. When her turn comes, she settles on a sofa and helps the vaccinator brace her one-year-old daughter Komal's arm for the pinprick. Once outside again, she pauses for a moment before returning home. "I wanted to have my children vaccinated," she says. "I saw on television how it will help them lead a healthier life. I want only the best for my daughters."
Since 1999, measles immunisation campaigns have already reduced deaths from the disease and its complications by 60 per cent worldwide. In Pakistan the campaign is led by the Government of Pakistan, with financial and technical support from the members of the Measles Initiative, comprising UNICEF, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Foundation, the American Red Cross and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).