In the Syrian Arab Republic, mobile teams extend the reach of vaccination effort

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By Razan Rashidi

With no end to the fighting in sight, and a widening outbreak of polio, volunteers are pushing to reach children with life-saving vaccine.

DAMASCUS, Syria, 1 May 2014 – Almost six months after the confirmation of the first new polio case in the Syrian Arab Republic, UNICEF continues to support national efforts in tackling the outbreak.

“Reaching all Syrian children remains the major challenge for UNICEF inside Syria,” says Dr.Iman Bahnasi, UNICEF Syria Health Specialist. “The main goal of our national response is to vaccinate children several times; we planned for six rounds of vaccination, and we already accomplished five rounds so far. We may increase this number according to the new developments.”

Although it is difficult to estimate, as many as 104,000 children have not been vaccinated in any of the five rounds to date.

Lack of access

A lady calls out to her husband, shouting, “Go tell Oum, Omar! Tell her to get her baby boy!” The man runs down the hill and comes back carrying a child. The mother is busy cooking, so the young father himself brings the neighbour’s baby for vaccination.

Almost three million children have been reached in this year’s immunization rounds, and the majority of Syrian parents are eager for their children to get vaccinated.

“The bottleneck is availability of vaccines in besieged areas,” says a health coordinator in the East Ghouta section of Damascus. In mid-march, UNICEF’s team carried 6,000 doses of vaccine to Douma, a Damascus suburb, as part of an interagency convoy, which finally reached the town after more than two years of inaccessibility. In April, 27,450 children were reached in the two besieged areas of Douma and Harasta in the Damascus suburbs.

“In some areas that we visited, parents were totally unaware of the outbreak and the vital need for vaccination,” says a female volunteer vaccinator. “The use of mosques to announce the campaign proved to be useful.”

UNICEF is supporting a national communication plan to raise awareness among parents on the need to immunize their children. It has also provided the Ministry of Health with 18 million doses of polio vaccine in support of the eradication efforts. The support of many donors, including the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), has been vital – their support helped UNICEF to deliver 7.5 million polio dozes to the children in Syria so far.

“As long as we don't have unhindered access inside Syria to areas that are under siege and that are hard to reach, polio will not be contained,” says Juliette Touma, UNICEF Communication Specialist. “We always say with polio that there's no borders, there's no checkpoints. The virus doesn't need a passport – it just travels.”

One of the major obstacles is reaching populations in areas cut off by the conflict. In an effort to reach every child with vaccination coverage, UNICEF is supporting local NGOs and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in sending mobile health teams to remote villages and areas affected by conflict.

The work is dangerous and full of difficulties. “Even supplying automobiles with fuel to move is a challenge,” says one volunteer vaccinator.

Community outreach

According to monitoring efforts supported by UNICEF, more than 90 per cent of families that have had their children vaccinated learned about the campaign through other families, relatives or neighbours.

In Maraba, a Damascus suburb, the mobile team arrives, and parents are alerted by loudspeaker with the news of the polio outbreak.