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Polio immunization drive reaches children on the move in Pakistan

© UNICEF/Pak2009/Ramoneda
Sana Gul, 2, displaced by conflict in the Swat Valley, receives oral polio vaccine at her temporary home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

By Marta Ramoneda

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, 31 July 2009 – Dr. Mohammed Salem walks alongside volunteers carrying small coolers filled with oral polio vaccine around the streets of Fauji Colony in Rawalpindi, Punjab Province.

It’s National Immunization Day for polio, a country-wide government vaccination campaign supported by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). Volunteers look for pen marks on the little finger of every child under the age of five to see if he or she has been vaccinated. If the mark is absent, they administer the vaccine.

“The biggest challenge we face,” Dr. Saleem explains, “is to reach children who are on the move.”

Fleeing violence

This was the case with Sana Gul, 2, originally from Malakabad village in the Swat Valley region. Sana and her family were among the more than 2 million people displaced by fighting between government forces and militants in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province in recent months.

Like hundreds of others, they found refuge in Fauji Colony, a poor, densely populated area of Rawalpindi where migrants from all over Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan have been settling for years. The residents of Fauji Colony have supported the displaced population – relatives and non-relatives alike – giving them shelter and sharing their limited resources.

“It’s the first time Sana has been vaccinated since we arrived here,” says her mother, Nazia, who had made sure all of her four children received their routine immunizations back home.

Gaps in immunization

But routine immunization has not been available for many children in Swat during the past year. In some areas, immunization campaigns stopped as deteriorating security prevented health workers from doing their jobs.

 

© UNICEF/Pak2009/Ramoneda
On a nationwide polio immunization day, women vaccinators go from house to house to administer the polio drops to all children under five years of age in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Access was also severely limited in Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies, in the equally conflict-ridden Federally Administered Tribal Areas. As a result, two new cases of polio have recently emerged in Bajaur.

Pakistan is one of only four countries in the world where polio remains endemic, with 117 cases detected in 2008, almost four times the number reported in 2007.

Through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative – a partnership spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, and UNICEF – the international community seeks to eradicate this debilitating yet preventable childhood disease through immunization campaigns for children under five.

723,000 vaccinated

“Setting aside the difficult situation, displacement has provided an opportunity to reach unvaccinated children and to provide health services and information to previously unreached families,” said UNICEF Programme Communications Specialist Melissa Corkum.

To date, more than 723,000 displaced children have been vaccinated against polio – mainly in North West Frontier Province, where most of the displaced families have taken refuge, but also in Punjab and Sindh Provinces.

Sana’s family is one of the few displaced households from Swat remaining in Fauji Colony. Most started to return home during the past two weeks, when the government began the repatriation process.

While some members of Sana’s family prepare to go back soon, others have decided to stay in Rawalpindi a little longer until they are sure that Swat is safe.

 

 

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