By Samia Nakhoul
BAGHDAD, (Reuters) - The U.N. Children's Fund launched a measles and polio vaccination campaign for four million Iraqi children on Sunday and said malnutrition levels showed Iraq was suffering a humanitarian crisis even before any U.S.-led war.
"There are four million children being vaccinated throughout the whole of Iraq during a five-day period which started today," Carel de Rooy, Iraq representative of UNICEF, told reporters.
"Twenty three percent of (Iraqi) children under five are malnourished, that in itself is an indicator which shows there is a humanitarian crisis in the country today," he said.
De Rooy said UNICEF, while still hoping for a diplomatic solution, has been preparing contingency plans for war.
UNICEF has pre-positioned hundreds of tonnes of relief supplies in the Iraq region, including medicines, nutritional supplements for children and water equipment as part of a broader U.N. effort to be ready for a humanitarian crisis.
He said war could disrupt government food handouts on which many Iraqis, impoverished by 12 years of U.N. sanctions, rely.
"It is a food distribution system which works very well and obviously if this system is interrupted that will be another major risk," he said, adding that 24.5 million Iraqis receive monthly rations equivalent to 2,200 calories per person a day.
"That is the real drama. People are dependent on the public service for everything," De Rooy said.
More than 14,000 health workers and volunteers backed by 7,000 mobile UNICEF teams fanned out across Iraq and went from door to door in poor areas to ensure every child is immunised.
De Rooy was supervising the campaign in Iraq, whose 25 million people still live under U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and who face the threat of a U.S.-led war if Baghdad fails to disarm under U.N. resolutions.
De Rooy said the mortality rate of children under five in Iraq was 56 per 1,000 in 1989. Ten years later it had risen 160 percent to 131 per 1,000, a rise even bigger than that seen in HIV-infected countries in eastern and southern Africa.
At a clinic in Saddam City, a poor and densely-populated Baghdad district of some two million people, parents lined up to lay their children on a small table to be vaccinated.
UNICEF is also leading an accelerated campaign against measles, which spreads rapidly within displaced populations and kills more children than any other disease, De Rooy said.
"There is a quarter of a million children who are highly under-nourished who are at risk of measles....These children are at risk of dying, particularly if you have malnutrition combined with measles," De Rooy said.
To fight malnutrition, UNICEF is distributing high-protein biscuits to health-care centres and some 2,800 community childcare units which were established over the past decade to screen children and identify those who require extra feeding.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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