Protecting children in refugee camps from measles
Leaving no child behind
Elizabeth Lokosang (not her real name) and her family of six children are among 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers who have found their way to Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Located in northwest Kenya, 100km from the South Sudan border, the refugee camp bustles with spaza shops and small businesses as temperature hover above 30 degrees.
“We moved here from South Sudan four years ago because of the war and the insecurity there,” Elizabeth says. “The good thing is life is bearable here, and my children are happy.”
Elizabeth’s home is in a compound with three small houses made from mud and iron sheet roofs. The height of her home is so low that she must bend over to enter. Inside the sun-scorched compound her children, aged between two and 12, joyfully play games with their friends.
Yet not long ago, Elizabeth’s youngest child, Jona Lokosang (not his real name), wasn’t so happy. He contracted measles, which had broken out among the camp's refugee children, and was gravely ill.
“I remember my son had a rash, and his temperature was high, so I took him to the hospital. He was given a cream, Vitamin A supplements, and painkillers. It took eight days for him to recover fully.”
Unlike his siblings, Jona had missed his second measles vaccination within the time frame of 18-months-old, making him vulnerable to the highly infectious disease.
Kakuma camp reported 14 cases of measles in 2022. One case was also reported in the local host community. The cases are believed to have been caused by reduced immunization coverage among the local population which is largely nomadic, and the ongoing drought that has affected a large population of vulnerable and malnourished children.
A partnership between UNICEF, the Inter-religious Council of Kenya, Kenya’s Ministry of Health, and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, which provided funding, implemented a 10-day measles vaccination campaign here in Tukana and in other Kenyan counties including Nairobi, Mandera, West Pokot, Marsabit, Wajir, and Garissa.
About 1.2 million children from nine months to five years old were targeted to receive the vaccine. Children are who took part were left with purple fingertips from being dipped in ink, showing that they had received the measles vaccine.
This time Elizabeth made sure Jona got his jab. Despite recovering, she is adamant about making sure her son is protected in the future.
“The health workers within the camp told us the importance of the measles vaccine to reduce the chances of children being infected. If you see your child showing any signs of measles, take them to the hospital immediately,” Elizabeth explains passionately.
Yusuf Donga (not his real name), a community health promoter, was at the forefront of mobilizing guardians and parents in the refugee camp communities to get their children vaccinated against measles.
“The good thing is there has been encouraging vaccine acceptance of the measles vaccine. Parents were eager to take their children to health centres for vaccination,” says the South Sudanese refugee who left his country in 2014.
Yusuf works for the International Rescue Committee and is passionate about serving his community and ensuring people are healthy.
“We made sure to give them information on the vaccine in their local language, too, so they can understand the benefits clearly. Parents need to know that the disease is contagious and can spread among children if they are not vaccinated,” he adds.
To ensure that refugee children get their shots, UNICEF in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee supported the Ministry of Health to enhance advocacy and social mobilization activities through health education in the camp. Moreover, UNICEF assisted with planning, defaulter tracing, and screening all children under five visiting health facilities to check their vaccination status.
UNICEF social behavourial change specialist Lokaale Erot says consistent interventions are required to prevent outbreaks in the future.
“We need to continue strengthening routine immunization activities in the health facilities and outreach clinics to ensure the best immunization coverage,” he explains. “Continued surveillance and reporting for measles and other preventable diseases is also critical.”