Empowering refugee and migrant children to claim their right to health: Improving health literacy
“I have always had to behave ‘like a girl’ and I am not used to being asked for my opinion, but you ask me to say what I think during these workshops.” A 13-year-old girl from Syria describes the impact of empowerment workshops in Serbia Boy is drawing a picture. UNICEF-supported activities for children on the island of Lesvos, Greece The ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative has supported work across five European countries to improve health literacy among refugee and migrant children over the past year. As a result, they and their families have learned about key health issues, about the health services available to them, and how to demand health services as their right. Through its support for health literacy – the ability to find, understand and use information to take care of your own health – the initiative has helped to dismantle some key barriers to health services for refugee and migrant children and their families in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Serbia. This 27-month, €4.3 million co-funded initiative, which was launched in January 2020 by the European Union Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, works alongside young refugees and migrants to ensure that they have accurate health information in their own languages – information that reaches them via the channels they use and the people they trust. Importantly, the initiative makes them more aware of their right to health care in these European countries – welcome news for those who have fled from countries where good quality health care is either unaffordable or unavailable. With support from the initiative, UNICEF and its partners first worked with young refugees and migrants to identify gaps in the information available to them and in their own knowledge. This informed the health literacy packages that have been rolled out in all five countries over the past year, spanning a wide range of topics from immunization and nutrition to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV). The packages themselves have been backed by detailed plans to ensure that their messages reach their audiences and gain real traction. Great care has been taken to ensure that information materials are culturally appropriate, gender sensitive and child-friendly, and that they are suitable for the ages and backgrounds of their audiences. Cultural mediators and interpreters have helped to overcome language and cultural barriers, while materials have been made available in, for example, Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. Activities have often been led by trusted professionals, such as nurses, physicians and psychologists who are already familiar with the needs of refugee and migrant children and their families. Materials have been shared through channels and locations that are well-used by refugees and migrants, including asylum offices, temporary reception centres, health centres, Mother and Baby Corners (MBCs), workshops and discussion sessions, during outreach activities and via social media. As a result, health literacy is now embedded into existing activities with refugee and migrant children and parents across all five countries, and is based firmly on their views and needs.
“I’d settle for a year being sick, as long as it’s not her, not for a single day”
Little Varya was 3 years old when Alexei and Nastya Naumov adopted her from an orphanage. They had long dreamed of children, when they found this girl who looked so much like Alexei Naumov. Nothing could stop them: neither difficulties, nor Varyusha's diagnosis – HIV, which the orphanage told them about right away. Varya Varya at the New Year celebration Nastya and Alexei decided that they wouldn’t conceal their now 9 year old daughter’s diagnosis. It is better to put all the cards on the table, than constantly have to look over their shoulder, they say. The parents always emphasize: they have never regretted their decision. In November 2018, when Varya was in the first grade, she fell ill with scarlet fever. The family had just moved to Almaty from Atyrau. Nastya Naumova brought her daughter to two pediatricians, but they did not suspect anything. And then their infectious disease specialist at the AIDS center confirmed the diagnosis. ‘Guys, you have scarlet fever,’ she said. “It seemed to me that this was a forgotten disease, that it is simply impossible. Varya has recovered, but I was still afraid. And as it turned out, not in vain,” says Nastya. The Naumovs were warned that live vaccines are contraindicated for a child with HIV. “I was afraid that Varya would get infected,” Anastasia says. “I didn’t know how the virus would work with her diagnosis, how it would affect the body. And, thank God, for a long time she was able to avoid infection. But, as it turned out, not measles.” In Kazakhstan all children diagnosed with HIV usually receive a medical contraindication for vaccination, which applies to the so-called live vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella. Although in accordance with the WHO clinical protocol, a vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and other measles-containing vaccines (MCV) should be considered for HIV-infected patients who are asymptomatic or mildly immunosuppressed, as per the routine national schedule. For infants with high risk of exposure to the measles virus, an additional dose of single-antigen measles vaccine administered at 6–11 months of age is recommended, followed by a first dose of routine MMR or another MCV at age 12 months or older (with a minimum interval of 1 month between doses).1 Parents can learn more about each vaccine, included into the National Vaccination Calendar, at a special website dedicated to children routine vaccination: EGU.kz In February 2019, when Varya was preparing to go to school, she noticed red dots on her legs: hemorrhagic vasculitis. Nastya and Varya were immediately taken to the hospital; they thought it was an allergy. For 3 weeks the child was not diagnosed, doctors had not realised that it was measles. Anastasia Naumova shares her story Anastasia Naumova shares her story Later, it turned out that hemorrhagic vasculitis was Varya’s body's reaction to measles. The incubation period was already in progress. But the doctors the Naumovs visited did not understand this. Their infectious disease specialist arrived at the hospital only after Varya's temperature rose to 40 degrees, and diagnosed her with measles. Varya and her mother were taken to the infectious diseases hospital. Varya at the hospital with measles Varya at the hospital with measles “I will never forget the following 10 days…,” Nastya says. Varya fell seriously ill. She was burning with a fever, crying from pain at night. There was nothing Nastya could do to help her child. “I have hardly slept these ten days. I would lean on the table, doze off, the timer would go off - I set Varya's temperature to be measured every hour. And you can't do anything - the treatment is symptomatic,” Nastya says. The complications were the worst. Varya had right-sided pneumonia, so severe that she could not swallow saliva. How would Nastya give her pills? Water? Food? “I was almost shoving this pill into her mouth, and Varya cried and shouted: ‘Mom, it hurts! Mom, don't!’ Almost two years have passed since that moment, and I am still shaking. I’d settle for a year being sick, as long as it’s not her, not for a single day. When you see that your child suffers so much simply because someone did not give her the vaccine, how would you feel about it? I have no words,” Nastya says. In total, they spent about 6.5 weeks in the hospital. During their stay the hospital was full. Children and many adults - all with measles. Fortunately, Varya pulled through. Emaciated, she weighed 17 or 18 kilograms, weak, but alive. Varya does not mention her illness. Nastya noticed that after the illness Varya started having problems studying. Apparently, this ten day long fever affected her cognitive abilities. “I believe if opponents of vaccination ever saw how people bear measles, they would think about it. It's a shame that children who have medical contraindication are at risk,” Nastya says. The Naumovs then vaccinated their daughter (with those vaccines that are not contraindicated for her) in an ordinary district hospital. “The child has HIV infection, an incurable disease, but even she did not have a reaction to the vaccine,” Nastya says. In 2019, there was an outbreak of measles in Kazakhstan with 16,871 cases, of which 13,326 (78.9%) were laboratory confirmed.2 19 children and two adults dies from the disease. Among the victims of measles, 8 children were not vaccinated due to medical contraindications. In 2020, 3,270 cases of measles were registered, of which 2,265 were children under 14 years of age. False contraindications and medical exemptions have been identified as one of the main causes of missed opportunities to vaccinate against measles during the root cause analysis conducted by UNICEF Kazakhstan. The analysis was the part of the UNICEF Kazakhstan Measles Outbreak Prevention Program funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). “We sincerely thank USAID for partnering in such an important program for children's lives to prevent a measles outbreak in the future and strengthen the immunization programme in Kazakhstan. We believe that this project will help save and preserve the lives and health of Kazakhstani children and families," said the UNICEF Representative in Kazakhstan Arthur van Diesen. The Program provided technical support to analyze the causes of the measles outbreak, study parents' views on vaccination and awareness campaigns, as well as recommendations for improving the supply of vaccines and building the capacity of healthcare workers for immunization. For example, UNICEF is providing a series of trainings to address false contraindications in cooperation with the Association of Family Doctors of Kazakhstan in Aktobe, Atyrau, Eastern-Kazakhstan, Kyzylorda, Turkestan, Karaganda oblasts, Almaty and Shymkent.
Through pandemics and epidemics, hope stays alive
For more than 70 years, we have been working to improve the lives of children and their families. Our mission is made possible by a strong network of talented and dedicated staff that includes physicians, clinicians, logistics experts and communication specialists. As the global COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we look back at UNICEF's history of responding to health crises the world over, and look ahead to recovering from this one. Филиппины UNICEF/UN03784 Индия, 1961 год. Медицинский работник делает девочке прививку против оспы. UNICEF/UNI41906 Disease prevention Since its beginnings, UNICEF has been at the forefront of disease prevention and revolutionizing children’s health. Working closely with partners like the World Health Organization (WHO), we have seen the eradication of smallpox and the near eradication of polio. Since 1988, the number of children affected by polio has reduced by 99 per cent. Today, some of the same lessons we’ve learned in contact tracing in communities are being applied to reach vulnerable children and their families in some of the remotest parts of the world. Бангладеш, 1989 год. Посол доброй воли ЮНИСЕФ Одри Хепбёрн делает прививку от полиомиелита ребёнку в клинике. In the 1980s UNICEF led the child survival revolution — a shift from treating health issues to preventing them — helping to reduce child deaths by up to nearly 80 per cent in some countries. Our worldwide distribution of oral rehydration solution has helped reduce the number of deaths from diarrhoea — a leading killer of young children — by 60 per cent between 2000 and 2007. Mass immunization campaigns have also played a huge role in protecting children against preventable diseases. For measles alone, about 20 million young people’s lives were saved between 2000 and 2015 thanks to such efforts by UNICEF and partners. HIV and AIDS In 1987, AIDS became the first disease to be debated on the floor of the UN General Assembly. As Member States convened, UNICEF and WHO were already monitoring possible interactions between the disease and immunization and breastfeeding. As infections spread, UNICEF geared its research, policy, planning and fundraising to better understand how to prevent mother-to-child transmission. To equip the public with facts, we supported health education around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, working tirelessly to inform, educate and protect against stigma and discrimination around HIV and AIDS. Медицинский работник берёт кровь для исследования на ВИЧ Since 2010, 1.4 million HIV infections among children have been averted. The reduction in mother-to-child transmission is viewed as a public health success story. Jointly with partners, UNICEF has set ambitious targets for ending AIDS by 2030. Малыши обнимаются в приюте Swine flu In 2009, the swine flu pandemic swept across the world primarily affecting children and young adults who were otherwise in good health. UNICEF put measures in place to prepare for possible local outbreaks in 90 countries. These measures remained in place after the pandemic with an eye on future outbreaks. Mедицинские работники посещают дома Ebola Within two and a half years of the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, more than 28,616 cases and 11,310 deaths had been recorded. During the crisis, UNICEF helped in providing care for ostracized children suspected of being infected, children who lost parents and guardians to Ebola, and the millions who were out of school. Since 2018, with the start of the second-biggest Ebola epidemic ever recorded, we have been working with partners across the region to prevent transmission and protect affected children. Within a year, UNICEF and partners had trained more than 32,400 teachers on how to teach children about Ebola prevention and how to make schools a protective environment. Медицинский работник измеряет температуру Coronavirus (COVID-19) The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has upended family life around the world. Economic shutdowns, school closures and confinement measures are all having a heavy impact on children now and the longer-term repercussions risk their safety, their well-being and their future. UNICEF is calling for swift global action without which, this health crisis risks becoming a child-rights crisis. ЮНИСЕФ Южный Судан, 2020 год. ЮНИСЕФ располагает сетью, состоящей из 2500 социальных активистов, работающих в течение года для повышения осведомлённости людей о важности соблюдения правил гигиены, иммунизации, питания, защиты детей и образования. UNICEF is on the ground in more than 190 countries, partnering with governments, health workers and other front-line responders to keep children healthy, safe and learning, no matter who they are or where they live. COVID-19 is one of the biggest fights in our history, yet, it is a fight that together we can win. Are you with us?
Safeguarding the health of refugee and migrant children during COVID-19
, the initiative has supported UNICEF’s efforts to improve the immunization process for refugee children and migrants by strengthening the assessment and monitoring process. As a result of such efforts, refugees and migrants have been included in the national COVID-19 Immunization Plan.