Iraqi Red Crescent volunteers saving lives at community level

In a country where, according to Unicef, 15 million people depend entirely on food rations to survive, Iraqi Red Crescent (IRCS) volunteers are actively working to save the lives of millions of children, by making sure they are immunized against polio and measles.
The first round of the 2003 immunisation campaign, under the supervision of the Ministry of Health, has just been held for five million children under five. More than 600 Iraqi Red Crescent volunteers visit the communities, monitoring families to determine where children have been vaccinated or not.

The campaign, financed by the UN's Children's Fund (Unicef), was advertised countrywide through leaflets and TV spots in Arabic and Kurdish produced by the Iraqi Red Crescent. The WHO provides the vaccines and the Ministry of Health carries out the vaccinations. The second round of the polio campaign will take place in February and the measles vaccination is planned for March.

The Federation, in its support to the Iraqi Red Crescent monitoring activities, targets unvaccinated children as a priority. Although approximately 90 per cent of monitored children are already vaccinated, Iraqi Red Crescent volunteers sometimes reach remote areas where entire villages have not been touched by the vaccination campaigns.

According to Anne Merete Bull, the Federation's health delegate in Baghdad, last September, IRCS volunteers found 10 "unvaccinated" villages and promptly made sure the children were registered and inoculated.

"These volunteers can reach areas inaccessible to others, such as the autonomous Kurdistan regions in the north of Iraq," she explains.

The backbone of the volunteers' life-saving action is the IRCS community-based first aid programme, supported by the Norwegian and Swedish Red Cross Societies. More than 2,500 volunteers have already been trained, and 720 more will finish the ten-day course by April. In 2003, the aim is to increase the number of volunteers trained by 15 per cent.

Volunteers give lectures at least twice a month in schools, primary health care centres, mosques, and village community centres. They focus on practical advice about hygiene, nutrition, water and sanitation, how to store food, how to avoid diarrhoea and other diseases.

"They are bringing life-saving information and skills to the heart of communities. Last year, more than 87,000 people were reached through these health lectures - the number will be doubled in 2003", says Anne Merete Bull.

"In each governorate, a minimum of 30 are trained as trainers, to allow them to pass on their skills and knowledge to others. This number is being doubled in March," she adds.

IRCS is also spreading its knowledge outside these formal lectures. In a recent survey conducted by the Federation, 75 per cent of volunteers said they were discussing first aid and health education with family and friends, and giving small informal talks at work.

"The health education programme is essential in today's situation, because health education is a part of disaster preparedness. The significant factor here is that lifesaving knowledge is reaching all parts of the community", underlines Anne Merete Bull.

In late October 2002, the IRCS introduced a new component to its health education programme: special training for volunteers in HIV/AIDS prevention. Two were selected from each of its 18 branches - one female and one male. For the first time ever, these young people, aged between 15 and 22, will give lectures in high schools and colleges on how to avoid spreading HIV/AIDS as well as other sexually transmitted diseases.

These courses were given by facilitators from the Lebanese Red Cross, in collaboration with doctors from the AIDS centre in Baghdad. The authorities officially acknowledge 233 cases of AIDS in Iraq, but the Ministry of Health admits there might be more.

In spite of the rising tension in the country about a possible conflict, Iraqi Red Crescent volunteers remain enthusiastic about their role. "They feel they have an important role to play, a responsibility towards the community", says Anne Merete Bull. "They manage to continue planning for the future, for first aid training, even though they know that something terrible could happen next."