In Turkey, country-wide vaccinations help Syrian refugee children stay healthy
Exposure to infectious diseases is a major risk for children in large migration movements
GAZIANTEP, Turkey, 9 August 2017 – A crowd of mothers gathered early, parking their strollers in a neat row against the side of large, bright building. Amal Nabil, a 32-year-old Syrian refugee, had travelled for more than an hour to get there, first by bus then on foot. In the entrance hallway, she held her one-year-old daughter in her arms as her three-year-old shed her coat and joined a group of children playing with balloons.
“My neighbourhood health centre told me I had to come here to get my baby vaccinated,” she said. “Today is the first day they are doing the vaccines and I wanted to get here before it got too busy.”
The salmon and ivory coloured health centre where Amal brought her daughters opened in January 2017, and still smelled of fresh paint. There were balloons for the children and hygiene kits for the parents. Amal fled Aleppo two and a half years ago. Tall and poised, she recalled her past life as a teacher and law student married to a successful businessman.
Now she struggles to survive in a studio apartment as her husband moves from job to job. Her youngest, Sema, was born in Turkey. Her three-year-old, Rima, has no memories of their Syrian home. Amal cooed and whispered to Sema as a nurse, Mahmoud Alaboaish, also a Syrian refugee, gave the little girl the first of two shots in her upper thigh. Sema responded with high-pitched screams and sobs.
Before Amal left the room, Mahmoud explained the possible side effects of the vaccinations and the timings for the next shots. Amal listened attentively, leaning in on the desk to show her refugee registration and her children’s vaccination records. Sema snuggled close, her cheeks still wet with tears.
So began the first round of an accelerated country-wide vaccination campaign that ended in early March. It was followed in May by a second 13-day campaign, part of an effort to immunize every child. The Ministry of Health (MoH) led a country-wide team of 5,000 people, supported by UNICEF and WHO, to give the missing vaccine doses to more than 120,000 refugee and migrant children under the age of five. Nearly all of these children live in 20 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
Vaccination information was disseminated at all levels – from the ministry and provincial directorates to mosques, local health centres, as well as via radio broadcasts. In Gaziantep, outreach teams with vaccine cold boxes went door to door in neighbourhoods where many Syrian families live, offering vaccinations on the spot.
The language barrier between Arabic-speaking refugees and Turkish doctors has been a major challenge, so Syrian doctors and nurses are now being trained and certified to work in these health centres.
An estimated three million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. Exposure to infectious diseases is a major risk faced by young children in large migration movements. The vaccines – Pentavalent, MMR and Hepatitis-B – are provided by the Turkish government free of charge. All new immunization records are also transferred into Turkey’s health information system.
UNICEF supports the Government of Turkey in its country-wide immunization campaigns with generous funding from the State of Kuwait.