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.”
HIV-positive… and fearless
During the first TEDxYouth event organized on 17 November in Kazakhstan, Baurzhan, age 13, and his mother Aliya spoke about living openly with HIV. This is his story. Standing before more than 100 people, Aliya asks if anyone in the audience remembers the incident in 2006 when 149 children in southern Kazakhstan were infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) at a local hospital. A few hands go up. Hesitantly. “Not too many,” sighs Aliya. “That’s 149 families facing profound pain, shock, complete lack of support and understanding.” Indeed, when the news first broke at the time, there was very little by way of public understanding and sympathy. On the contrary, the families affected have spoken about the pervasive rumors – including one suggesting that a special area would be built to quarantine the families – that they had to endure. Some families were even broken up. The sense of isolation still persists for many. “In our society,” Aliya says, “HIV is still perceived to be a ‘plague’ of the 21 st century. These families and children are hiding. They do not open up about their HIV status. These children are still invisible to society.” Then she adds, “They all live in great fear. All, but one.” A voice chimes in. “I am one of those 149 children. I am HIV-positive and today, I am the only teenager in Kazakhstan with HIV who is living openly,” says Baurzhan, age 13. Baurzhan and his mother at their home in Kazkhstan. Working towards acceptance Aliya’s son Baurzhan was just nine months old when she learned that the blood transfusion he had received for treatment was infected with HIV. When he started going to school, Baurzhan understood that there were different kinds of viruses and one of them happened to be living in him. He did not feel different, until teachers asked him not to play during recess or physical education class. “We realized that for school to be an understanding environment, we needed to organize training, raise awareness among teachers on the importance of tolerance towards children with such illnesses,” his mother says. The lanky teenager remembers crying in the school gym changing room after his classmate called him offensive names related to HIV. “I was not ready to hear it. It hurt a lot.” The incident made Aliya realize that students needed awareness training, too. She helped the school organize lessons on child rights and responsibilities explaining the universality of rights. After the first session, the boy who had offended Baurzhan apologised for what he had said. “For 11 years, I have been taking medications every day to control the amount of virus in my blood. My immunity is 900 cells. Do you know that the immunity of a healthy person is 1200 cells? So, my immunity is that of a healthy teenager,” he says. “My viral load is less than 50 copies. This means that I am just a carrier, but I cannot transmit the virus while I am taking medications.” Together with friends, Baurzhan created a self-help group called “Asian teens” where they share their experiences of living with HIV. “I want to support other kids who are living in fear because of their HIV status. I want to be a role model of living openly and without any fear.” As Baurzhan says these words, the audience erupts in standing ovation. After the TEDx talk, Baurzhan and his mother said that many people approached him and asked if they could give him a hug. “I really liked the feeling of speaking in that room – it was filled with warmth, the audience showed that they cared”, he said. “My friends who are also living with HIV cannot wait to see my video, I think they will be surprised to see the positive reaction my story received.” Baurzhan with his sibling at the family home. Baurzhan with his sibling at the family home. HIV today and steps for the future Since the outbreak in 2006, the HIV/AIDS situation has changed. By 2010, UNICEF helped decrease the rate of HIV transmission from mother to child in south Kazakhstan, which at the time had the highest number of deliveries by HIV-positive women. At country level, joint efforts of the Ministry of Health and UNICEF led to dropping the HIV transmission rate from 10.9 per cent in 2007 to 1.8 percent in 2014. Kazakhstan is now submitting a request to be certified as a country that virtually eliminated mother-to-child HIV transmission. However, more work remains, says UNICEF Health and Nutrition Officer Kanat Sukhanberdiyev. “Globally, we still see that many children are dying from HIV/AIDS. We have a long way to go until children and adolescents with HIV receive the full package of healthcare and psychosocial support.” On this World AIDS Day, UNICEF is calling on the world to increase investments in HIV prevention, testing and treatment programmes. Otherwise, by 2030, the lives of some 360,000 adolescents will be at risk of AIDS-related diseases. Find out more about UNICEF’s work on HIV in Kazakhstan.
“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.
Strengthening the implementation of health policies
The initiative also promotes and supports multi-disciplinary approaches and teams to address the complex causes of health problems among refugee and migrant children – from trauma, anxiety and over-crowded conditions, to lack of hygiene facilities and immunization. As a result, support from the ‘RM Child-health’ initiative builds trust between refugee and migrant families and health providers. At the Centre for refugees and migrants near Bela Palanka in south-eastern Serbia, for example, the needs of refugee and migrant women have shaped the development of the Community Centre run by ADRA, with its Mother and Baby Corner for women with infants. Here, women can take part in language classes, sports activities and, crucially, in workshops about their own health and rights. “ The most important thing is that all the advice from our doctor is in line with their economic circumstances and current living situation [in Reception centres],” explains social worker Andja Petrovic. “The advice is tailored to their life and I think they particularly like that, because they can see that their situation is acknowledged. Because when they go to a doctor [in other facilities], they get advice that they can’t follow because they don’t have the living conditions for it.” Also in Serbia, funding from the ‘RM Child-health Initiative’ supports work by UNICEF and the Institute of Mental Health that looks beyond the provision of basic health care to assess the scale and nature of substance abuse among refugee and migrant communities. This cutting-edge field research will guide the development of materials and capacity building specifically for health and community workers who are in regular contact with young refugees and migrants, helping these workers to identify and tackle substance abuse by connecting children and youth to support services. As one researcher involved in the research commented: “Most of those children have spent several years without a home or any sense of stability. They can't make a single plan about the future since everything in their life is so uncertain. I can't begin to imagine how frightening that is.” By building greater rapport between frontline workers and children, and by equipping those workers with the support, skills and resources they need, the ‘RM Child-health’ initiative is helping to transform health policies into health practice. This vital work has been particularly crucial in 2020, as frontline workers have had to confront – and adapt to – the greatest public health crisis in living memory: the COVID-19 pandemic. Logo 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).It 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 Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food 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.
Strengthening national health capacity for refugee and migrant children
At first glance, helping a 10-year girl from Iran, now living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, get a new pair of glasses might seem a simple thing. For Maisa, however, this is the end result of a continuum of intensive support, from identifying a girl who struggles with an eye condition, to connecting her to a skilled ophthalmologist. And now Maisa stands in front of a mirror, trying on the glasses that will enhance her life, learning and play. Such a momentous day is only possible when an established health system is equipped to accommodate and respond to the complex needs of refugee and migrant children. Support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative aims to reinforce and enhance health systems across five European countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Serbia) so that these systems can deliver the high-quality services that are the right of every child – and that every child needs, regardless of their origins. The aim: to ensure that health systems catch every refugee and migrant child who is in danger of slipping through the gaps. And there are additional benefits: a health system that works for these vulnerable and excluded children is a health system that works for every child, and that can reach those who are so often the very hardest to reach. This 24-month, €4.3 million initiative, which was launched in January 2020 by the European Union Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, aims to strengthen the capacity of health systems to deliver health care to refugee and migrant children. That means ensuring access to life-saving immunization, to mental health and psycho-social support, and services to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, as well as maternal and new-born health care and nutrition. Stronger health systems are needed to overcome the bottlenecks that confront so many refugee and migrant families when they try to access health care. “ The profound challenges that often confront populations – especially children – on the move can include cultural and language barriers, stigma and discrimination on the part of health providers, and a lack of detailed medical records or paperwork,” says Dr. Basil Rodriques, UNICEF Regional Health Advisor. “They may also have their own reasons to distrust state-provided services, including fears of deportation.”