Routine immunization aims to save children's lives in Central African Republic

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Claudia and her baby Melanie at the vaccination clinic at Carmel displacement site in Bangui. © UNICEF CAR /2014/Logan

By Madeleine Logan

As the crisis in the Central African Republic continues to threaten the most vulnerable, UNICEF is working to protect children from deadly and preventable diseases through improved routine immunization programmes.

BANGUI, Central African Republic, 21 April 2014 - Since a group of armed men burnt down Claudia’s house, she and her baby Melanie have been living in a leaky tent in one of Bangui’s largest displacement camps. Claudia can’t protect her daughter from homelessness, and she can’t protect her from rain and cold.

But she can at least protect Melanie from measles, yellow fever and polio. That’s why she visited a mobile vaccination clinic at Carmel displacement site last week.

The clinic was set up for an immunization campaign for children under 2 years old, many of whom had not received routine vaccinations since the crisis here started in December 2012. The UNICEF-supported campaign is targeting 128,000 children throughout the Central African Republic.

“I wasn’t able to take my baby to the clinic for the last four months, because of the violence where I live,” Claudia says. “She missed out on some vaccinations, but I didn’t know which ones. When we ran away from our house, we lost her vaccination card.”

Claudia worries that if her baby becomes ill, she cannot afford treatment. “We are all living on the ground, which turns to mud when it rains,” she says. “So the smallest children easily fall sick. It’s better to avoid diseases with the help of vaccinations.”

Rebuilding the cold chain

Conflict has been disastrous for the health of children in the Central African Republic. The vaccine cold chain has been largely destroyed outside Bangui, the capital, and many medical staff fled their posts. This month, UNICEF has been distributing refrigerators and cold boxes to rebuild the cold chain and the routine immunization system.

“Vaccinating children against deadly and preventable diseases is essential to saving children’s lives in Central African Republic,” says UNICEF Health Specialist Deo Manirakiza. He points out that before the crisis, less than 9 per cent of children were fully immunized on their first birthday, according to 2010 survey figures, the most recent data available.

Last year, while the crisis displaced close to a quarter of the population, UNICEF reached more than half a million children with vaccines against measles. In January this year, 150,000 children in camps for the internally displaced were immunized against polio. Now UNICEF is focusing on improving routine immunizations, rather than one-off campaigns.

“Making routine immunization work is the only way to guarantee that all children will always be protected from deadly and debilitating diseases,” Dr. Manirakiza says. “We need to fully immunize hard-to-reach children if we’re going to bring down Central African Republic’s child mortality rate – the sixth highest in the world.”

Raising awareness

The crowded Petovo Health Centre shows the determination of mothers to get their children immunized. There are 50 women waiting in line for vaccinations, and extra chairs have been set up in the courtyard for the overflow.

Many of these mothers have come to the clinic because of the efforts of Nicholas Kambi. A health volunteer, Mr. Kambi found a novel way to raise awareness about the campaign. For six days, he walked along every street in his suburb, whistled loudly to get everyone’s attention, and yelled out the details of the vaccination campaign. He would then walk another 50 metres, stop and whistle, and repeat the same message.

“Of course I get tired and I get a sore throat from all the yelling, but that’s my job,” he says. “I do it to help protect the mothers and the babies.”