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Kenya: UN-backed measles and polio vaccination drive targets 5.5 million children

Kenya: UN-backed measles and polio vaccination drive targets 5.5 million children

More than half a million children under the age of five in Kenya’s Central and North Eastern Provinces have been immunized against measles and polio in the first phase of a United Nations-backed campaign targeting 5.5 million youngsters after a measles outbreak infected 1,600 people, 42 of them fatally, in the last six months.

To reach such a large number of children, the UN Children Fund (UNICEF) and its partners have recruited social mobilization teams that are spreading the word about the free vaccinations. This effort is especially important in the North Eastern Province, where most of the population is nomadic and would otherwise remain unaware of the campaign.

Mobilizers spread campaign information on radio programmes, banners and posters, through loudspeakers from cars and during individual home visits.

Seventy per cent of children in most of the countries neighbouring Kenya have not been immunized, leading to outbreaks in places where immigrants seek refuge. To reduce the risk of cross-border infection, UNICEF has opened a clinic in Kenya's Somali hub. There, refugee mothers are encouraged to take their children for vaccination.

The campaign seeks to reach 95 per cent of vulnerable children in the two targeted provinces. In addition to the measles and polio vaccines, children under five receive vitamin A supplements that further boost their immunity. Research shows that vitamin A can reduce infant mortality by 25 per cent.

UNICEF has pledged $3.47 million and the UN World Health Organization (WHO) is donating $3.33 million to support the immunization drive. But the Government will need a total of $27.7 million to successfully vaccinate all children between nine months and five years of age against measles and polio in the two phases.

Kenya, which launched a national immunization programme in 2002, is considered a role model for its neighbours. It reduced its number of measles cases from 7,000 in 2002 to 20 in 2004 and organizers hope for a similar success with the current campaign.