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Immunization reduces threat of disease outbreaks around refugee camps in Kenya

© UNICEF Kenya/2011/Modola
Lul Omar holds on to her daughter Nimo as she receives her polio drops

By Daisy Serem

DADAAB, Kenya, 2 August – At Malayley on the outskirts of the massive Dadaab refugee settlement in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, screams pierce the air as children receive their measles vaccinations with the jab of a needle. Those next in line cling fearfully to their parents, one cry triggering another. But to their mothers and fathers, who know too well the value of the vital injection, the campaign is welcome.

Lul Omar has brought along her two children, Sadir, 5, and his sister Nimo, 3. Her three older children are above the age bracket of six months to five years targeted by this immunization campaign.

Sadir puts on a brave face as he gets his shot, and his mother looks on proudly. Ms. Omar had become increasingly worried about her children’s health, especially in light of the recent influx into the camp of refugees from neighbouring Somalia.

With immunization rates hovering under 40 per cent in Somalia, the movement of large numbers of refugees into the camps carries the risk of disease transmission for people in the nearby communities.

Integrated campaign

These worries have been reduced with the ongoing immunization drive supported by UNICEF and led by Kenya’s Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation. Aimed at protecting children in communities around the Dadaab refugee camps, the integrated campaign is reaching children under five with immunization against measles and polio, as well as vitamin A supplementation and de-worming.

“This medicine is good, and I hope that the doctors will keep coming to Malayley,” says Ms. Omar.

Next week, a similar campaign will be conducted in the Dadaab camps, targeting both children and young adults under 30.

Effect of malnutrition

Health officials recognize the threat of a measles outbreak, which can spread rapidly in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Hagadera Hospital in Dadaab has already witnessed 42 cases of measles, with one death.

Dr. Milthia Abdulkader of the International Rescue Committee notes that malnutrition rates at Dadaab have risen from 5.6 per cent last year to 9.7 per cent this year, due to the famine declared in parts of Somalia. A measles outbreak would only worsen the situation, since the disease reduces children’s resistance to other illnesses, and they are more likely to die when they are malnourished.

UNICEF is supporting the immunization campaign by providing measles and polio vaccines together with vitamin A and de-worming tablets. The agency has also enhanced social and community mobilization to create awareness about the campaign through various platforms.

A burden lifted

That’s how Mohammed Arte, a father of five, came to know about the campaign. With his children all under seven, Mr. Arte is constantly coping with the risk of disease and malnutrition in his household.

His worries were allayed somewhat when he heard from his local radio station about the vaccinations. Today, at the health post, he is pleased to have all his children immunized from measles and polio.

Once the vaccines have been administered and the children’s cries become silent sobs, Mr. Arte heads home with his family, a burden lifted off his shoulders. Many other parents in northern Kenya – from the districts of Garissa, Fafi, Lagdera and Wajir South – have also been relieved of these worries, even as the immunization campaign for host communities comes to an end.

© UNICEF Kenya/2011/Mudola
A boy cries while being vaccinated during the UNICEF-supported measles and polio immunization campaign in the town of Liboi in Garissa District in North-Eastern Province, near the border with Somalia

Positive response

In all, the campaign has targeted over 200,000 children under five, including children in southern Somalia where vaccination coverage is at a record low. Communities have turned out in large numbers, eager to have their children immunized.

Mohammed Abdi, a government vaccinator, says parents have responded positively to outreach efforts reiterating the message that prevention is far better than cure.

UNICEF estimates it will need more than $300 million for a massive scale-up of operations to reach children in the Horn of Africa’s drought-affected areas with emergency aid and preventive services. The focus is on providing integrated interventions that addresses various aspects of a child’s survival and development – including provision of health care and vaccination.

For now, the famine emergency calls for speedy interventions that address the present danger of disease importation. For those who have received their vaccinations, it is one less thing to worry about.



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