Almost five million children reached in latest Iraq polio drive

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UNICEF and WHO commend Iraq and pledge support

AMMAN/BAGHDAD, 4 November 2008 - In its determination to maintain polio-free status, the Government of Iraq successfully completed another national drive in delivering vaccinations to almost 5 million children under five years of age throughout the country. Special focus was given to areas with a high influx of newly returned IDPs.

Almost 20,000 vaccinators participated in the 5-day campaign, which began on Sunday 26 October led by the Ministry of Health (MoH), with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, with a goal of reaching all of Iraq's under fives with the oral polio vaccine (OPV). By the last day of the campaign, 97 per cent (or 4.9 million) of the 5 million targeted children were reached and vaccinated in house-to-house visits and at fixed locations including every hospital and primary health care centre across the country.

OPV protects children against polio, a highly infectious and incurable paralytic disease that mostly affects the young. The current immunization campaign is part of Iraq's ongoing polio eradication effort, which has kept Iraq polio-free since January 2000, with support from WHO and UNICEF.

"We are pleased and encouraged by the results of this round, which were achieved in spite of heavy rains," said Dr. Mutaz, Manager of the Expanded Programme of Immunization of the MoH. "Furthermore there were no major security incidents to obstruct the work of vaccinator teams and acceptance of the population was generally excellent with no reports of refusals by families as has occurred in the past due to security concerns in certain parts of the country."

The MoH was determined to use the window of opportunity created by the relative improvement in security in the last few months to reach all vulnerable and displaced children, especially those living in Baghdad, Diyala, Wassit and Anbar, where coverage lagged last year. For example, in Baghdad coverage rose from 76.5 per cent in 2007 to 92 per cent in 2008; and in Diyala from 73 per cent to 96 per cent.

For the first time since 1995 the MoH has taken complete responsibility for logistics and transportation of all mobile vaccination teams by hiring more than 5,000 vehicles. However, the MoH has been purchasing all vaccines since 2005.

"Step-by-step the Government of Iraq is assuming greater responsibility for delivering basic health services to its children. This is especially so in the case of polio eradication and routine immunization, which the government has taken on board with increasing success. These are hopeful signs that things are gradually changing for the better in Iraq. The challenge is to sustain them," said Sikander Khan, UNICEF Representative for Iraq.

Dr. Naeema Al-Ghasser, WHO Representative, also praised the efforts of the MoH and vaccinator teams in their successful delivery of a high quality campaign: "It is important to protect the tremendous investment this country has made in eradicating polio. Polio is still endemic in seven countries around the world. As people travel, so does polio, and until it is eradicated everywhere there is still a real risk that it could reappear in Iraq. To minimize this risk, strengthening routine immunization services must be a top priority, and we must ensure that disease surveillance is strong. We will do all we can to support Iraq and ensure no Iraqi children will ever again be stricken by polio."

Iraq is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, spearheaded worldwide by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and UNICEF. This effort is close to eradicating polio in the few remaining endemic areas and has saved 5 million children from polio paralysis since 1988.

The second polio round will take place in November 2008.

For further information please contact:
Katey Grusovin UNICEF Iraq, + + 962 796234297,
Ban Dhayi, UNICEF Iraq, +962 7965 05008,
Dr. Omer Mekki, WHO Medical Officer ,