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.
"During crisis we realized, health is the most important thing."
For thousands of pregnant women in Kazakhstan, pregnancy coincided with the pandemic and the introduction of quarantine measures, which can vary from week to week. UNICEF estimates that around 116,000,000 children will be born worldwide during the pandemic.1 During the pandemic, 498,367 children were born in Kazakhstan (March 2020 - April 2021)2. From the very first months of pregnancy, a woman's life changes dramatically, and quarantine, self-isolation and additional precautions can limit access to medical services or add stress to women in labor. Aigerim is 40 years old; during the pandemic she was pregnant with her fifth child. Aigerim wanted to plan the birth the following year, but in early September 2020, she found out that she was expecting a baby. From the first days of pregnancy, Aigerim was registered at the district polyclinic at her place of residence in Nur-Sultan. 2021_Newborn_Family_Karaganda Aigerim with her newborn son ”I had constant access and contact with gynecologists and midwives. I got all my tests on time and I went to my routine check-ups," she says. Until the seventh month of pregnancy, Aigerim and her family lived in Nur-Sultan, and then moved to Karaganda, where she was transferred to the city polyclinic No. 1. Aigerim planned to give birth at her place of residence in the Karaganda Regional Perinatal Center. She didn't need to take a PCR test before giving birth. When frequent contractions occur or amniotic fluid is released, the woman in labour will have to call an ambulance or go to the hospital on her own. The PCR test will already be taken at perinatal centers. ”I was told that if a woman has any symptoms, she is taken to a separate quarantine zone. If not, then she gives birth and waits for the test results, " says Aigerim. The quarantine zone is a separate ward where a woman will give birth alone and will not have contact with other women in labor. If doctors do not detect COVID-19, then the woman in labor goes to the general ward. According to UNFPA Kazakhstan , in the event of a confirmed infection or suspected infection with COVID-19, health care workers should take appropriate precautions to reduce the risk of their own infection and that of others, including by wearing protective clothing. Aigerim herself had COVID-19 in June 2020, three months before the start of pregnancy, but did not feel any significant changes in her health or the possibility of becoming pregnant. According to Aigerim, this pregnancy went the same way as the previous ones, and she hardly noticed any changes in the situation and the new reality of quarantine measures. 2021_Newborn_Family_Karaganda Aigerim with her children The only difference Aigerim observed is in the work schedule and the timetable of the clinics. In the past, pregnant women had to wait 2-3 hours in a queue at the polyclinics; now, the reception is conducted strictly by appointment and there are no queues in the corridors. “I guess I was doing so well because I was prioritizing my health. It is very important for a woman," she says. "In the current time of crisis, we all realized that the most important thing is health and only a strong immune system can cope with the virus." Aigerim, being a nutritionist, always carefully monitors her well-being, so she did not worry about the upcoming birth. ”I had no concerns about my health, " says Aigerim. "I’m constantly checking my thyroid, haemoglobin, taking vitamins and eating right". In addition to maintaining immune function, Aigerim followed the necessary precautions to avoid contracting the virus. She avoided public places, shopping centres and other crowded places, and washed her hands frequently and thoroughly throughout the day. 2021_Newborn_Family_Karaganda Aigerim and her children reading a book Due to the pandemic, she was forced to go for walks only on the streets or in parks, in order to have minimal contact with passers-by. And masks and sanitizers have already become essential items when leaving the house. Aigerim already had four children. Her fifth pregnancy was going well, and in April she gave birth to a baby boy. "The birth went well. I am very happy and glad that my child was born healthy. I finally have him in my arms” " says Aigerim. Aigerim was discharged two days later, and her recovery is proceeding calmly and with her family. “I would also like to thank the doctors in the polyclinics. Despite the introduction of quarantine measures, they handled stressful situations perfectly and dealt with issues quickly, correctly and in a timely manner,” says Aigerim. Cooperation with the European Union allowed UNICEF to support the healthcare system of Kazakhstan during the COVID-19 pandemic by equipping it with the medicines and diagnostic devices necessary to effectively combat the coronavirus. Funded by the European Union Humanitarian Aid. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union. European Union cannot be held responsible for them.
“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.
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.