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Emergency measles campaign aims to immunize 5.5 million children in Kenya

© UNICEF Kenya/2006/Bonn
A Kenyan child, held by her mother, receives a measles vaccination at the Kibera South Health Centre.
By Julie Mwabe and Emma Cockburn

GARISSA / NAIROBI, Kenya, 9 May 2006 – More than half a million vulnerable children under the age of five have been immunized against measles and polio in the first phase of a life-saving vaccination campaign in Kenya’s Central and North Eastern Provinces.

Overall, UNICEF and its partners hope to reach and immunize around 5.5 million children during two phases and stem a recent measles outbreak, which has seen more than 1,600 cases and 42 child deaths in the last six months.

"This campaign saves lives. When the kids with measles die, we lose people who could be successful in the future,” said Provincial Medical Officer Omar Ahmed Omar. He added that already impoverished parents are devastated economically when their children become infected and they must pay medical and hospital fees.

Large response to alerts

To reach such a large number of children, social mobilization teams are spreading the word about the free vaccinations. This effort is especially important in the North Eastern Province, where most of the population is nomadic and would otherwise remain unaware of the campaign.

Mobilizers broadcast campaign information on radio programmes, banners and posters, through loudspeakers from cars and during individual home visits.

Mary Maleki, a paediatric nurse, was one of the many residents of Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum district, who pitched in on the first day of the campaign. As she walked along the slum’s deplorable roads, she cried out, “Come and get your child immunized today!”

© UNICEF Kenya/2006/Bonn
Vaccination is administered to a young girl in Kibera South Health Centre as part of an immunization campaign aiming to reach 5.5 million Kenyan children under the age of five.
At the various immunization sites, scores of mothers waited patiently in long queues for their children to receive the vaccines. They turned out in large numbers in response to alerts about the measles outbreak.

But the social mobilizers have also met with some resistance. “One father said ‘no’ to his children being immunized, so I visited his house three times,” said Ahmed, a volunteer in Garissa. “I reminded him of our neighbour who did not immunize her daughter. She died of polio in the local hospital. After the third visit he agreed, and all five children were vaccinated.”

Immunization role model

Seventy per cent of children in most of the countries neighbouring Kenya have not been immunized, leading to outbreaks in places where immigrants seek refuge. To reduce the risk of cross-border infection of Kenyan children, UNICEF has opened a clinic in Kenya’s Somali hub. There, refugee mothers are encouraged to take their children for vaccination.

The campaign seeks to reach 95 per cent of vulnerable children in the two targeted provinces. In addition to the measles and polio vaccines, children under five receive vitamin A supplements that further boost their immunity. Research shows that vitamin A supplementation can reduce infant mortality by 25 per cent.

This is the first phase of a two-stage campaign to protect Kenya’s children from both measles and polio. The country, which launched a national immunization programme in 2002, is a role model for its neighbours. Kenya reduced its number of measles cases from 7,000 in 2002 to 20 in 2004; organizers hope for a similar success with the current campaign.

UNICEF has pledged $3.47 million and the World Health Organization is donating $3.33 million to support the immunization drive. However, the Government of Kenya will need a total of $27.7 million to successfully vaccinate all children between the ages of nine months and five years against measles and polio in the two phases.



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