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UNICEF helps protect children and families at risk on the Cameroon-Chad border

© UNICEF Cameroon/2008/Bahringer
UNICEF has provided thousands of doses of measles, polio and meningitis vaccines to protect young children and their families from preventable diseases in the crowded environment of Maltam Camp in northern Cameroon.

By Christyne Bahringer

KOUSSERI, Cameroon, 6 May 2008 – According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, about 8,000 people, including over 2,800 infants and children, are currently living in Maltam Camp, a refugee settlement in northern Cameroon. For these displaced families, all taking refuge from the violence in neighbouring southern Chad, time seems to stand still.

“We are waiting here, with nothing to do but see when we can go home. We wait for news that it is safe to return to our homes, if we still have homes there,” says a refugee named Mohammed, while his wife and four young children rest in the shade of their tent.

But while time passes slowly for Mohammed and his family, it seems to be passing quickly for the organizations and workers coordinating relief efforts.

“It is a dangerous situation, despite the fact that the fighting seems to have stopped in N’djamena. But we must work fast day and night to prevent the spread of communicable disease among children and women in the camp,” says UNICEF Team Leader for Emergency Operations James Watts Munang in Kousseri, a small town in Cameroon near the border with Chad.

A race against time

Prevention of epidemics is a standard response in almost any emergency. But in an emergency such as this, in which large populations are crossing borders, it is vital to protect not only the children and families living in refugee camps but also those from the host community – in this case, Cameroonian children and families.

Thus far, it appears that UNICEF and its partners are winning the race against time. The first round of a mass immunization campaign provided measles vaccines to more than 37,000 children and polio vaccines to over 43,000. Infants and children ages six months to five years of age also received vitamin A supplements, which provide an extra boost to their young immune systems.

© UNICEF Cameroon/2008/Bahringer
UNICEF is working to provide immunization against meningitis to all vulnerable children and adults in Kousseri District, where an outbreak could be disastrous.

Another campaign against meningitis, targeting all children and adults in the camp (excluding pregnant women and children under two years old), has also been conducted in recent weeks. Plans are now under way to provide maternal and neonatal tetanus vaccinations for pregnant women and girls of child-bearing age residing in Maltam.

Aiming for universal immunization

Out of the total number of children vaccinated against measles and polio, more than 30,000 are Cameroonian, living in Kousseri. From UNICEF’s perspective, responding to an emergency should not mean compromising regular programming, especially when an emergency occurs in an area where work remains to be done for infants and children, and where any outbreak of disease could be devastating.

According to UNICEF Health Officer Stephen Wazeh, only 74 per cent of children in Kousseri are fully immunized  a far cry from the goal of universal immunization. Thus, children and adults in Kousseri will also receive meningitis vaccinations in the coming weeks.

Back in Maltam, Mohammed says he and his wife are grateful that their children are now safe from three very deadly diseases. “We can at least know now that they will not get sick and that while we are here, we do not have to fear for their health and safety as much,” he says. 



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