Reaching Iraq’s displaced children with essential vaccines
Health workers go door-to-door, meeting with families in displacement camps.
The Ashti camp is situated in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It’s about 150 miles east of the region’s capital, Erbil, and lies close to the border with Iran. The camp has been built to eventually accommodate 1,000 displaced families.
A mobile health team, supported by UNICEF, has arrived at Ashti. The team carries cold vaccine carrier boxes on their shoulders. Inside these boxes are crucial vaccines needed to protect children and keep them healthy, making sure they’re not left behind.
The team meets Saeed. He’s a father of five, including two young boys. For him, having access to these routine immunizations is a massive relief.
“I want all my children to be healthy. I want to make sure they are vaccinated and strong. They are all I have in my life,” Saeed says.
These two boys are among more than a million people in Iraq that have been forced to flee their homes and are now internally displaced. About a third of those are children.
With the support of Iraq’s Ministry of Health, UNICEF is working to make sure that these children have access to the routine immunizations they need to be healthy and thrive. That involves forecasting the number of vaccines needed, procuring them, and then managing the safe storage and transportation of those doses.
In the Ashti camp, the mobile health team cares for 10-month-old Shahad. Her grandmother is with her as she receives the routine immunizations she needs.
“In Iraq we have a saying: ‘The children of the son are dearer than the son,’” she says as she holds Shahad in her arms.
It’s not unusual for caregivers to feel a degree of fear and uncertainty around the topic of vaccines, so, the health care workers often need to reassure them that the vaccines are reliable and safe.
In another camp in the Kurdish region of Iraq, Hassan Sham, which is situated just east of Mosul, the health team meets Abdullah. He’s the father of 2-month-old Adham. At first, Abdullah was hesitant about the vaccines.
“I was a little afraid," he says. "But the words of the medical staff encouraged me a lot."
And it’s not just his baby that will be receiving vaccines that will help to protect him.
“I will take the COVID-19 vaccine on the same day that my son receives his vaccines,” Abdullah confirms.
Back at the Ashti camp, the team of health workers walk from house-to-house, meeting with families inside their homes. Their vaccine carriers store the doses needed to vaccinate children against preventable diseases including polio, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus.
In one home they find newborn Farah with her mother. Farah is just 1-week-old.
Farah receives her one-week weigh-in, gets an all-around health check and is given the routine immunizations she needs as a newborn. She’ll get two more postnatal checks in the weeks ahead, and her next round of vaccines will be due when she’s 2-months-old.
Although Farah was born in Ashti along with her brother Kameran, they have three older siblings who grew up outside the camp. They once called Mosul home but were forced to flee in 2016 because of conflict.
Providing routine healthcare services to children in Iraq like these, displaced by conflict, is often challenging. Because of the instability, thousands of children are believed to have not had their births registered. That means that in many cases they’ve not had the documentation needed to access basic health services in recent years, including vaccinations. That puts them at greater risk of preventable and potentially fatal illnesses if they are not reached.
UNICEF, along with its partners, is working tirelessly to reach these children whose early years have been unsettled by conflict, and often compounded by trauma and fear.
For the father of Farah and her four siblings, a place to call home for now, where they can access healthcare services to keep his children healthy, is invaluable.
“We lived through terrible days, wars, conflicts, displacement,” he says. “I want to see my children live in peace. My children have seen death many times. They are now safe here."
In the past decade, the global refugee population has more than doubled. Children make up almost half of the world’s refugees. We mark World Refugee Day at a moment when new waves of violence and longstanding conflicts continue to force millions of people to flee their homes. Wherever they come from and whoever they are, all refugee children have equal rights and the right to seek safety. They all need our support, and that includes access to health care, in order to be protected, grow, learn and thrive.