Europe and Central Asia has surpassed global progress on child mortality, more than halving the deaths of children under five and infants since 1990. And as progress for the poorest households has accelerated, the health gap between the richest and poorest has narrowed. However, persistent inequities reflect a continued failure to invest effectively in child-centred health systems for all. In South-East Europe, for example, child mortality among the Roma population is two to three times higher than national averages. Problems missed at an early age can be more difficult and expensive to address later in life. Such inequities are compounded by a failure to spot problems during pregnancy and during the first 1,000 days of life, when children’s bodies and brains build the foundations for their life-long development. Problems missed at an early age can be far more difficult and expensive to address later in life. Across the region, more than half of the children who die before their fifth birthday die in their first month of life.These deaths are often the result of conditions that are readily preventable or treatable at low cost through, for example, access to good obstetric, ante-natal and post-natal care, routine immunization and exclusive breastfeeding . The main killers of children under the age of five in the region are also preventable: pneumonia and injuries. Emergencies have an intense impact on child health and nutrition. The impact of emergencies on children's health and nutrition can be extreme. Children on the move, such as those caught in Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis , for example, often lack adequate clothing, food, shelter or warmth. Access to health services, including immunization, has often been inadequate on their journey. The region’s existing HIV prevalence, coupled with lack of safe water and sanitation, as well as ongoing challenges related to early child development and protection all heighten the vulnerability of children during emergencies. The region is also experiencing vaccine ‘hesitancy’ – the reluctance of some parents to immunize their children, or parental delays in immunization . This hesitancy, often fuelled by misinformation, puts children at risk of contracting, and even dying from, infectious diseases, including polio and measles.
Frontline social workers provide vital support to improve health
Yura has been a social worker for many years. “When I started working in social services, I was mainly interested in family therapy,” she says . “In time, I found out that supporting communities to become resilient and self-reliant is an extremely rewarding experience.” A year ago, she joined the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria (CRWB) – a civil society organization created in 2003 to support the integration of refugees and migrants. “Guiding through people from refugee and migrant backgrounds on health-related procedures in their host country is a way to empower them to find solutions to health issues,” explains Yura. And this is particularly vital for those fleeing from armed conflicts and humanitarian crises. As they search for safety and better life opportunities, both adults and children go through many traumatic experiences as a result of often prolonged stays in refugee camps, limited access to health care, and the dangers they face as they travel through volatile areas. By the time they finally reach a safe destination, they are often in very bad physical and psychological shape. “In Bulgaria, refugee children arrive with their parents or – in some cases – unaccompanied. Psychological problems, infectious diseases, medically unobserved pregnancies and, in particular, a lack of immunization, are common problems that have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing.” Radostina Belcheva, Project Coordinator and Deputy-Chair of CRWB The CRWB partners with UNICEF Bulgaria to provide general health checks and referrals, as well as life-saving vaccines in line with children’s immunization schedules, and equips parents with information on health risks, entitlements and how to access medical services. “As part of the ‘Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South-Eastern Europe’ (RM Child-Health) project co-funded by the European Union’s Health Programme, we work with our partners to ensure that children can follow immunization plans and that their vaccination status is updated in their immunization documents. These are crucial steps in ensuring good health . ” Diana Yovcheva, Programme Officer with UNICEF Bulgaria Working directly with refugees, Yura consults families that want to access health services. “Some cases are easier than others”, she says, recalling a consultation with Ahmed*, a 45-year-old father of six children, who fled Syria in 2020 and received humanitarian status in Bulgaria. A chef by profession, Ahmed settled quite well in the host country, found a job in a restaurant and, after some time, managed to reunite with his wife, his four sons and two daughters. “Ahmed was referred to the CRWB by friends and he came in for a consultation on the immunization process with his youngest baby girl, Yasmina, only one year old” explains Yura. During their meeting, the social worker provided information about the health system in Bulgaria, the role of a general practitioner, and how people with refugee status can access medical services including vaccinations for their children. Although Ahmed’s baby girl had been vaccinated before her arrival in Bulgaria and had an immunization passport, the father urgently needed to update her vaccination status to synchronize her vaccinations with the recommendations of the national immunization calendar. “I contacted the Regional Health Inspectorate and helped Ahmed to provide the necessary documents and find a translator, as the documents were in Turkish”, says Yura. Subsequently, she helped Ahmed schedule an appointment with a medical doctor and Yasmina received her next vaccine. Parents often lack the necessary vaccination documents. According to Yura, “Sometimes children have not had any vaccinations, or they have been vaccinated in their country of origin, but their immunization cards have been lost or destroyed.” Such cases require additional consultations, research and coordination, as well as testing for antibodies and immune responses when it is not clear whether the child has been vaccinated. “By empowering parents to familiarize themselves with the immunization plans and procedures we help them become proactive in following up on their children’s health." Yura, Social worker To address the COVID-19 restrictions and keep active communication with refugees and migrants, the CRWB and UNICEF developed leaflets in Bulgarian, Arabic and Farsi with details about the health system in Bulgaria and the importance of vaccinations, and regularly provide health-related information via social media. “The role of communication in immunization is essential. Our frontline staff interact on a daily basis with beneficiaries, but we have also used other means [such as a Facebook group dedicated to health-related topics] to keep the information flow going, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic . ” Radostina Belcheva, Project Coordinator and Deputy-Chair of CRWB Logo - Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe This story is part of the Project Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe, co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative). The content of this story represents the views of the author only and is her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the European Health and Digital Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains .
Improving health literacy among refugee and migrant children
UNICEF has worked with partners and with young refugees and migrants on the ground to identify information gaps – work that has, in turn, guided the development of health literacy packages across all five countries on a range of crucial health issues, from immunization and nutrition to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV). The assessment has shaped the development of detailed plans on how to ensure that health messages reach their audience and have an impact. The health literacy packages have also drawn on existing materials, including Facts for Life , My Safety and Resilience Girls Pocket Guide and an adapted version of the UNFPA curriculum: ‘Boys on the Move’. Refugees and migrants face a chronic lack of health information in their own languages, and a lack of information that reaches them through the channels or people they trust health navigation Some common priorities have been identified by refugees and migrants across all five countries, including access to immunization and other primary health care services, breastfeeding and young child feeding, and the prevention of GBV. They have also flagged up the pressing need for more mental health and psychological services. Other issues have emerged as priorities in specific countries, including cyberbullying and online safety in Italy, and substance abuse among young people In Serbia – the focus of a new in-depth UNICEF study. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic is a new and urgent priority for refugee and migrant communities – and one that has heightened the health risks they already face by curtailing their movements and their access to health services. A consultation with refugee and migrant adolescents and young people living in Italy has revealed major gaps in their knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, drawing on an online survey, a U-Report poll and a series of focus group discussions. It has highlighted some common misunderstandings, such as the myth that masturbation causes infertility, and continued perceptions around the importance of a woman’s virginity at marriage, as well as knowledge gaps around menstruation, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The consultation also found, however, that the young participants want to know far more about this crucial area of health. As one young man from Guinea noted during a focus group discussion: “often young people do not want to know if they have an infection, also because they are not aware that these can be treated. It is so critical to raise awareness on STIs tests and treatment options.”