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Race to protect children from a deadly disease

© UNICEF/HQ04-0423/Nesbitt
A health worker fills an auto-disable syringe with measles vaccine, Nyala, South Darfur.

While two million children are now safe from measles after a massive immunization campaign, half a million more children in western Darfur have not yet been reached because of ongoing insecurity in the area. Vaccinating children against measles can often mean the difference between life and death, as UNICEF Communication Officer James Elder reports.

DARFUR, 12 July 2004 - Nineteen deaths last month in Kalma camp, South Darfur, underlined the vulnerability of children who have had to flee their homes in this troubled region. All the children succumbed to measles. Nineteen funerals. Nineteen mothers burying their babies. All in just 16 days.

This is the deadly threat that UNICEF is working to eliminate. Now more than 10,000 children in the camp have been immunized against measles – a coverage rate of more than 98 per cent.

Injecting life into a drained health system, UNICEF’s Darfur measles campaign has been a major success. In South Darfur, where numbers are now complete and where Kalma camp lies, figures suggest that the target – vaccinating more than 95 percent of children aged between nine months and 15 years – was reached. Final figures for South Darfur show that 1,250,000 children were vaccinated against measles.

“Measles campaigns have been launched before in Sudan, but all used some basic infrastructure and existing medical personnel,” said UNICEF interim Representative Cecilio Adorna. “Darfur’s national measles campaign is complicated by difficulties of ongoing conflict and poor access. And yet this campaign has been an outstanding success. Thanks to efforts from all sectors of society this campaign has shown what can be done for the children of Darfur when the government and the international community combine.”

Vitamin A doses were also given to all 483,000 children aged six months to five years. And in a pre-emptive strike on polio, UNICEF sought to vaccinate 200,000 children against polio. Recently a five-year-old girl in Darfur was paralyzed by polio, giving rise to fears that the virus would spread – so the addition of polio immunization could save thousands.

In the industrialized world, measles means little more than a couple of days off school, but in Sudan, given the harsh conditions of camps, increasing malnutrition, heavy rains and the threat of malaria, measles has been killing two children every hour.

Ahlam Sahl’s children were among the more than two million children across all of Darfur’s three states who were immunised against measles. She took her children to be vaccinated in Kalma camp – a positive sign in troubling times. Ahlam’s husband was murdered four months ago when Janjaweed militia attacked their village. Since then she has moved from a camp in Nyala, South Darfur’s capital, to Kalma. Conditions have never been easy, and with the onset of rains, Ahlam’s house – a grass shack no bigger than a cupboard – is flooded. “This is no place to live,” she tells me. “But I have access to health facilities and I am very happy to vaccinate my children against measles. My first two babies died of measles, nine and seven years ago. I have cried enough about measles, but now it will never happen again.”




12 July 2004 - UNICEF's Francis Mead interviewed UNICEF's Acting Represenative in Sudan Cecilio Adorna about the measles campaign.

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