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News note

Lifesaving immunization drive for 3.9 million children in Iraq

AMMAN, 20 April 2007 – In one of the biggest humanitarian operations in Iraq in the last two years, a wave of 8,000 vaccinators will set out across the country starting this Sunday to prevent a possible outbreak of measles amongst Iraq’s children – many of whom have not received their routine immunization as a result of insecurity.
The ambitious immunization drive will last for two weeks and aim to bring the Measles, Mumps & Rubella (MMR) combined vaccine to as many of the 3.9 million Iraqi child aged between one and five years old as possible.

Measles can be deadly to children, killing more worldwide each year than any other vaccine-preventable disease, but is easily prevented by immunization. Iraq’s Ministry of Health is organizing the MMR campaign as part of Iraq’s long-term Measles Elimination Plan, with support from UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) and invaluable financing from the European Commission.

“Insecurity in Iraq has increased the risk of a widespread measles epidemic that could claim the lives of up to 10 per cent of infected children,” said Dr. Naeema Al-Ghasser, WHO Representative for Iraq. “All children between 12-59 months everywhere in Iraq need to be immunized, even if they have had the vaccine before. The vaccine is safe and effective, and gives lifelong immunity against measles.”

“The timing of this MMR campaign is critical.” said Roger Wright, UNICEF Special Representative for Iraq. “One million Iraqi children now have no protection against measles, as a result of insecurity and falling immunization rates.  This vaccine will certainly save many young lives and we are calling on everyone in Iraq to ensure vaccinators reach children safely over the next two weeks.”

Iraq’s Measles Elimination Plan has been remarkably successful to date, reducing measles cases nearly 20-fold - from 9,181 in 2004 to fewer than 500 reported last year.  However, UNICEF and WHO said that in Iraq’s current conditions many cases may go unreported. For this campaign, WHO has helped to train the vaccinators and provided critical technical advice for campaign planning, implementation and monitoring. UNICEF has contracted over 2000 vehicles to transport the vaccinators as well as providing safety boxes to dispose of syringes, and is helping to engage the support of Iraq’s community leaders.

Iraq’s growing humanitarian crisis has also added to the campaign’s challenges, the UN Agencies said, increasing the risks for vaccinators and making it harder to calculate numbers of children to immunize. UNICEF and WHO are particularly concerned to secure access to children stranded in the most violent parts of Baghdad, Diyala and Anbar, as well as children who have been displaced because of insecurity. Special plans are being made to deliver the vaccine to these populations, where the risk from measles is highest.

Al-Ghasser praised the dedication and courage of all involved in the campaign, saying: “The unflagging determination of Iraq’s health workers and many local volunteers to deliver this important vaccine is both admirable and heartening.”

“We have a short window of opportunity to give children lifelong protection against a dangerous disease,” said Wright. “This MMR campaign must proceed unhindered and unite everyone for children’s sake.”

UNICEF said earlier this week that it urgently needs an initial $20 million to provide humanitarian aid for Iraq’s children, of which only 11 per cent has been received to date.

About the Global Measles Initiative
Iraq’s effort is part of the Global Measles Initiative, one of the most successful public health programmes in history. The Measles Initiative, which is spearheaded by a consortium of international organizations, has reduced measles mortality worldwide by more than 60 per cent since 1999, surpassing its own targets. It is currently saving at least half a million children from measles-related deaths every year.

UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

For further information, please contact:
Claire Hajaj, UNICEF Iraq, +962 7969 261 90, chajaj@unicef.org
Ban Dhayi, UNICEF Iraq, +962 7965 050 08, bdhayi@unicef.org
Patrick McCormick, UNICEF New York Emergencies: Tel:+ 1 212 326 7426; Mobile + 1 646 427 7905, Email: pmccormick@unicef.org
Rafael Hermoso, UNICEF New York Emergencies: Tel:+ 1 212 326 7516, Email: rhermoso@unicef.org

Dr. Omer Mekki, WHO Iraq, mekkio@irq.emro.who.int




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