UNICEF and partners push ahead with polio and measles campaigns for Iraqi children

Polio Immunization Begins 23 February, Measles Effort Early in March; Bellamy Cites 'Race Against Time'
GENEVA / NEW YORK, 18 February 2003 - In the shadow of ongoing international debate over a potential conflict in Iraq, health workers are expected to fan out across the country from 23-27 February to immunize more than 4 million Iraqi children against polio, UNICEF announced today.

UNICEF is also supporting an accelerated campaign against measles, which spreads rapidly within displaced populations and kills more children than any other disease.

Both campaigns are extensions of ongoing immunization efforts in Iraq, led by the Ministry of Health and supported by UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Red Crescent.

"The situation of Iraqi children has been very difficult for more than 15 years," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "No matter what the global situation, we cannot shrink from the ongoing work of reaching out to help them. Amidst many distractions, we must all keep the children of Iraq uppermost in our minds and do everything we can to protect them."

Bellamy pointed out that one out of eight Iraqi children dies before the age of five - one of the worst rates in the world. She also noted that:

  • One-third of Iraqi children are malnourished
  • One-quarter are born underweight
  • One quarter of school-age children do not go to school
  • One-quarter do not have access to safe water

"There's just no question that Iraqi children are extremely vulnerable," Bellamy said. "Whatever comes, their health and well-being must continue to be a priority."

UNICEF said the polio campaign is crucial to protecting not only Iraqi children from the disease but also to preventing polio outbreaks elsewhere in the region.

"To eliminate polio, you have to shut it down everywhere," Bellamy noted. "This is a disease that crosses borders easily, so it is essential that we complete this year's immunization and reach every child." Although Iraq suffered a major outbreak of polio in 1999, increased assistance from UNICEF and WHO has led to zero cases since January 2000.

To reach 4 million Iraqi children during next week's polio campaign, more than 14,000 health workers will go door-to-door making sure that each child has been protected. Bellamy said that the Ministry of Health deserves credit for pushing ahead with the campaigns under difficult circumstances. She noted that the campaigns would not be possible without the shared commitment of the ministry, WHO, and the Red Crescent.

"For many people, this campaign is an act of hope and faith in the future," Bellamy declared. "And it's a major achievement for a country that has been devastated by two major wars and 12 years of sanctions."

Urgent Measles Campaign

Noting that time had become a rather unpredictable commodity, Bellamy said UNICEF and its partners are also pushing forward with an expanded campaign against measles.

With the help of health workers and volunteers, routine measles immunization for children under five has been intensified, she said. Among other things, UNICEF is supporting door-to-door efforts to track down and vaccinate children who missed the measles vaccination in earlier efforts.

According to UNICEF, there are close to half a million Iraqi children under five that have not been vaccinated against measles.

"Finding these children is an important undertaking," said Carel de Rooy, UNICEF's Representative in Iraq, noting that measles spreads rapidly when children are displaced from home and living in makeshift quarters. "We have volunteers poring over vaccination records and going door-to-door to locate them and make sure they are immunized."

Once children under five have been vaccinated, UNICEF will turn its attention to older children between the ages of six and 12, many of whom were not vaccinated against measles in the mid 1990s when vaccines were in short supply. Children who missed being vaccinated when they were younger could easily infect children in the more susceptible under-five age group.

UNICEF is shipping in half a million doses of measles vaccine to supplement government stocks for the campaign. UNICEF has also provided funds for health workers, supervisors, and independent monitors, and is covering the costs of transport and community mobilization for both polio and measles campaigns.

"We are still hopeful that peace will prevail," Bellamy said. "But as the Secretary-General has said, the UN has a responsibility to be prepared should the worst happen."

UNICEF has pre-positioned hundreds of tonnes of relief supplies in the Iraq region, including medicines, nutritional supplements for children, water equipment and other items - part of a broader effort by the UN family to be ready for humanitarian contingencies.

UNICEF has provided direct support to Iraqi children since 1953. It opened a permanent field operation in Iraq in the early 1980s and has been present ever since. UNICEF has nearly 300 staff in Iraq and supports efforts to ensure that Iraqi children are immunized, well-nourished, and have access to safe water and decent sanitation, as well as a quality basic education.

For further information please contact us:.

Geoffrey Keele, UNICEF Iraq: (+964-1) 719-2318

Anis Salem, UNICEF Amman: (+962-6) 553-9977

Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Geneva:, (+41-79) 909-5509

Alfred Ironside, UNICEF New York, (+1-212) 326-7261