DR Congo

DR Congo: Immunising children in a conflict zone

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When Kanyere arrives at Tulizeni clinic, baby on hip, she's a little short of breath. "I suddenly remembered about the vaccination campaign while I was tending my crops," and she joins the queue with her two children, aged one and five. "I rushed home to get my children. My children have had other vaccinations and they've never been ill, so I couldn't miss it."

Kanyere is just one of thousands of mothers taking their infants to be immunised against measles in an ambitious five-day campaign run by the Ministry of Health and supported by Merlin and other NGOs. The campaign stretches across 23 health zones in North Kivu, eastern DR Congo (DRC), the area worst hit by decades of conflict.

Population movements

"This is a crucial campaign," says Dr Atilio Rivera-Vasquez, Merlin's Country Health Director in DRC.

"Local populations, mostly farmers, have to endure daily insecurity. Women are still attacked en-route to their farms and are often robbed of their meagre earnings as they return from market days. The ongoing conflict in this region has also displaced thousands from their homes. These issues mean that children often miss the opportunity to be immunised against high risk diseases such as measles. With this campaign, the Ministry of Health is aiming to reach nearly one million children under five, and Merlin is supporting this work in North Kivu and Maniema provinces."

Numerous teams of community health workers - like the one from Bandu clinic (above) - have been coordinated by the Ministry of Health to help implement the campaign. Merlin has worked to keep teams motivated and properly stocked. This includes providing training and regular supervision, as well as transport and fuel to keep the vaccinations at the right temperature.

Back in Kirima health centre, one of these community workers, Kambale, takes a break from his megaphone. "I've been up since 4am, calling mothers to bring their children," he says.

Kambale is also a local village leader. "It's important for our whole community that every child is treated," he adds. "One sick baby puts everyone at risk, so it's important that we do this properly."

Protecting children against crippling diseases

Around 4pm on the final vaccination day, large numbers of men and women, laden with produce, are seen returning home early from the fields. It's a sure sign that they don't feel entirely safe. Children run alongside their parents, some dragging empty watering cans, others balancing small sacks on their heads.

In unstable times like these, at least mothers like Kanyere can know that their children are protected against crippling childhood diseases, and have a better chance of growing up healthy in hoped-for times of peace.