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Immunization and health campaign protects drought-affected children in southern Ethiopia

© UNICEF/2006/Heavens
A child is vaccinated during a mass anti-measles campaign at a health post an hour's drive outside the border town of Moyale in Borena Zone, Ethiopia.

By Patricia Lone

BORENA ZONE, Ethiopia, 4 April 2006 – Chachu Guyyo, a thin and energetic 74-year-old, was making slow progress with her four grandchildren towards the health post. They had been waiting in a queue for hours, along with 40 other women and children, to receive the medicines and vaccines being dispensed.

Ms. Guyyo and thousands like her across the 63,000 square km of Borena Zone were key players in an energetic campaign – organized by the Government of Ethiopia, UNICEF and other partner organizations – to protect children from diseases and infections in this area of southern Ethiopia ravaged by drought and malnutrition. The battery of protection offered by the campaign included measles and polio vaccine, deworming medicine and protective doses of vitamin A.

Coordination and cooperation

The week-long drive got off to a strong start one Friday in late March at Tuka Hills Station, Dello and Goraye, and other far-flung points. Record-keepers jotted down numbers, which the government, UNICEF and partners such as the Red Cross, International Medical Corps and CARE checked and rechecked at various temporary health stations as the day progressed.

At one health point, 160 children had come through since early that morning – an encouraging sign that the nearly 1,400 children living in the area would indeed all be reached with life-saving interventions.

The campaign was a miracle of coordination and cooperation. Generator-fuelled cold chains and cooling boxes were brought in to protect heat-sensitive vaccines in a region where electricity is virtually non-existent. Bottled water was made available to wash down deworming tablets. Volunteers were mobilized and health workers brought in from other regions of the country to issue the oral polio vaccine and vitamin A.

The outreach was particularly vital because routine child immunization rates in Borena for measles, for example, hover at only 9 per cent.

© UNICEF/2006/Heavens
An official from the Oromia Regional Health Bureau shouts instructions to a crowd of mothers and children waiting to receive measles vaccinations in the town of Moyale on the Ethiopia-Kenya border.

Devastating cycle of drought

Adding to the difficulties facing Borena’s children, some 550,000 people are now affected by the drought here. Their herds of lean cattle and wiry goats have succumbed by the tens of thousands. Many others have been sacrificed to slaughterhouses for skin and scrap, earning their owners next to nothing in return. The result, for people dependent on milk and milk products from their herds, is desperation and increasing malnutrition rates that are particularly lethal for the children.

Borena is just one of the epicenters of a human disaster unfolding quietly and out of easy lines of sight in parts of Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti. Throughout the year in Borena, only 350-500 mm of rain falls in two distinct rainy seasons – most during the long rains in April and May, the rest from September to December. The failure of the short rains in Borena from September to December 2005 came on top of generally poor rainy seasons earlier that year and the year before.

The people of the region, able to cope with normally scarce rainfall and droughts, are now pressed mercilessly by the repeated rain failures that have ushered in a much shorter drought cycle; what was once a cycle of 10 years has now been halved to 5. With drought recurring so dramatically in this already arid area, people and livestock – and water sources and pasture – cannot really rebound.

There were some patchy scattered showers during the immunization and health campaign last month, perhaps precursors to the long-awaited April rains. But if the rains don’t materialize or measure up, the hard drought in Borena could increase illness, malnutrition and suffering to devastating levels.



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