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Children from conflict hit areas in Pakistan urgently need life-saving health services

© UNICEF/2009/Durrani
Aliya, 5, was admitted to the newly established Paediatric Unit at the District Headquarters Hospital, Mardan, in north-west Pakistan, after suffering diarrhoea for two weeks. When her condition deteriorated, her family rushed her to the hospital.

By Shandana Aurangzeb Durrani

TAKKAR, Mardan District, Pakistan, 16 July 2009 – It is sweltering and overcrowded in the Government Higher Secondary School in Takkar, which is now home to 106 displaced families from conflict-hit areas of Swat and Buner districts in north-west Pakistan.

One recent day there was a bustling excitement in the air as a team of local vaccinators came to the school to register eligible children and administer measles vaccinations. Zamarud, 10, and Muniba, 11, were amongst the 86 children living at the school who were given measles vaccinations.

Both the girls are from Mingora in Swat and were forced to leave their homes with their families as military operations against militants intensified in the restive valley during the last two months.

Host communities struggle to cope

On the day of the vaccinators’ visit, the school building was brimming with people. Principal Muhammad Kamal noted that his school is amongst some 4,000 government schools that have been turned into makeshift shelters to accommodate some of the 2 million people displaced by conflict in the region.

"Takkar's local population is around 18,000, while almost 13,000 internally displaced people have taken refuge in the area with friends and relatives, in rented accommodation and government school buildings," said Mr. Kamal.

According to government figures, only 10 per cent of displaced families live in official camps set up by the government, while 80 per cent are in host communities like Takkar, which are struggling to cope with such a huge influx of people. The government is now encouraging such families to return home due to a decrease in violence, but the vast majority of them remain displaced.

"The only government assistance these people have received so far, apart from shelter, is dry rations,” added Mr. Kamal. “All other things have been donated by local people. But these [displaced] people – especially women and children – urgently need health services, psycho-social support and educational facilities."

Vaccination campaigns

In addition to providing health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education and child protection services to the 25,000 families living in camps, UNICEF has expanded its services to reach vulnerable women and children residing in host communities.

However, humanitarian agencies are now struggling as funds deplete rapidly.

To prevent outbreaks of life-threatening diseases, including measles, vaccination campaigns were conducted from 15 June to 3 July in Mardan and Swabi districts. More than 556,000 children between six months and 13 years of age were vaccinated, most of them in host communities.

Need for health facilities

UNICEF is also strengthening the capacity of district-level health facilities to cope with the influx of patients – especially children. A paediatric unit set up at the District Headquarters Hospital, Mardan, is providing life-saving health services to displaced children.

"This 20-bed unit was set up on an urgent basis as the load of patients on the hospital facilities increased 50-fold", said Dr. Ershad, the head of paediatrics at a large public hospital in Peshawar. He comes to the Mardan paediatric unit regularly to provide supervisory and specialized paediatric services on a voluntary basis.

"It is imperative to increase the capacity of government health facilities," he added. "Otherwise we will have a catastrophe, as the summer season will increase the number of in-patient admissions for management of acute watery diarrhoea, which can be life-threatening in young children. This risk is especially acute in the present situation, where the majority of internally displaced families in host communities do not have access to safe drinking water and are living in overcrowded buildings in unsanitary conditions."



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