Field Diary: Parents in the Syrian Arab Republic brave fighting to get their children vaccinated
Mahmoud Allouh, of UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic, recently spent two days in Homs city – an area that has seen intense fighting in recent months – monitoring a UNICEF-supported measles and polio vaccination campaign for children under 5 years of age.
By Mahmoud Allouh
HOMS, Syrian Arab Republic, 6 December 2012 - At the vaccination clinics I visited, the sounds of children crying after their injections mixed with the explosions of gunshots and shelling in the streets outside.
But, despite it all, parents lined up to make sure their children got the vaccines that will protect them from diseases and can potentially save their lives.
The vaccinations took place in health centres and in temporary clinics set up at shelters for internally displaced persons and schools. Many areas no longer had actual health facilities, as they had been destroyed in the fighting.
Despite the risks and the violence, it was crucial for us to get out there and have these children vaccinated. Many have not been able to have their routine immunizations for months because of the conflict, which can put their lives at risk. Measles and polio are, indeed, highly infectious diseases that spread easily in situations in which people have to live in crowded conditions.
This, unfortunately, is the case for many children and families, not just in Homs, but in various parts across the Syrian Arab Republic.
A health worker in Homs who accompanied me during the visits said immunizing children in the middle of a conflict can be tricky. “The most serious problem we face is transporting vaccines and related supplies from the main warehouse in Damascus to Homs. Sometimes, this creates a shortage of essential items in health centres,” he said.
As well as operating in a dangerous environment, health teams also need to work around damage to infrastructure caused by the conflict – the main warehouse in Homs was destroyed some time ago, and cold rooms were damaged. Cooling trucks are now being used to store vaccines that need to be kept below certain temperatures.
But, despite all the challenges, the campaign is shaping up to be a huge success. To make sure parents knew they could get their children vaccinated, we spread the message through mosques, churches, kindergartens, TV channels and by SMS.
A mother I met at one of the vaccination clinics told me she brought her son Mohammed, 3, to get his shots, after she heard about the campaign through her mosque at Friday prayers.
Another mother, with a 1-year-old son, said she heard about it via the Syrian Association for Health Promotion and Development – one of UNICEF’s partners in the Syrian Arab Republic. She said she was relieved to be able to have her son vaccinated. “I was afraid I would not be able to get my baby immunized because we live in Homs, and I was concerned I would not be able to reach the health centre,” she said.
While in Homs, I also visited a crowded centre for internally displaced persons in the Al-Wa’er neighbourhood. According to a health worker, about 2,000 people currently live there. More than 500 are children under five, and 15 women are pregnant.
One little girl in the shelter, Rasha, 5, told me her 18-month-old brother was being immunized. She also told me that she was homesick. "I miss my friends from where I used to live," she said in a whisper.
UNICEF is working with partners to vaccinate up to 1.4 million Syrian children like Rasha and her baby brother against measles and polio. UNICEF is providing the vaccines, along with vitamin A supplements, vaccine carriers, safety boxes, cold boxes, syringes, vaccination cards, refrigerators and four cold rooms.
By 3 December, at least 630,000 children had received polio drops, and over 510,000 had been vaccinated against measles. The actual numbers of children reached are believed to be significantly higher, but, because of the security situation, data have not yet been received from all governorates.