UN kicks off weeklong campaign to immunize 5.8 million Iraqi children

Two United Nations agencies will support the Iraqi Ministry of Health in marking World Polio Day by launching a weeklong nationwide campaign to immunize Iraq’s children against the infectious viral disease. 

“The Government of Iraq is committed to polio eradication, and conducted 16 campaigns to that end in 2014 and 2015 as part of the Middle East Polio Outbreak response,” said Peter Hawkins, the UN International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Iraq, in a press release. 

Thanks to the Government’s strong commitment and the hard work of frontline workers, no new polio cases have been reported in Iraq since April 2014. 

In May 2015, Iraq was removed from the list of infected countries. “There is still a risk of polio returning to Iraq,” said the World Health Organization (WHO) Representative to Iraq, Altaf Musani, referring to possible surveillance and immunization coverage gaps among Iraq’s displaced populations – along with those living in inaccessible areas and informal settlements. 

“Until transmission is stopped globally, we need to maintain high levels of vaccination coverage and keep surveillance systems strong, to be on the alert for the virus,” he added. Under the slogan “two drops can change a life,” the five-day campaign aims to reach an estimated 5.8 million children below the age of five in Iraq, regardless of previous vaccination status. 

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that attacks the nervous system. Most vulnerable to the disease are children under age five – but timely immunization can prevent infection. “Polio transmission is ongoing in Pakistan and Afghanistan and new cases of polio have also been confirmed in Nigeria,” Mr. Musani pointed out. 

The Iraq Polio partnership conducted two national immunization rounds in February and April this year, reaching over 91 per cent of the targeted population. 

WHO and UNICEF will support the Health Ministry in conducting this month’s vaccination campaign, with special attention to the most vulnerable children in internally displaced persons (IDPs) and Syrian refugee camps, informal settlements, host-affected communities and newly retaken areas. 

During the campaign, more than 25,000 vaccinators will visit families, house-to-house. WHO will cover the operational cost, intra- and post-campaign monitoring, while UNICEF will provide support for focused social mobilization services. 

In coordination with the Ministry of Health, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Health and Zain and Korek Telecommunications Company will contribute to social mobilization and a communications campaign with a focus on IDPs. 

The fight to end polio is led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which includes Rotary International, UNICEF, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WHO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and governments of the world, with the support of many others around the globe. 

In a broader message on the Day, the partners acknowledged the solid work being done to ensure the Middle East is polio-free, but urges urged all countries to maintain vigilance and to guard against the virus being re-introduced. 

Despite the gains, serious challenges remain, for example, conflict limits consistent access to high-risk populations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and this continues to hinder efforts to vaccinate every single child under five, and compromises surveillance and early warning systems.
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