The Government of Liberia, with support from United Nations agencies, will launch a week-long measles vaccination campaign on Wednesday targeting all children in Nimba County, which hosts over 30,000 refugees who fled the political turmoil in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.
As of the end of January, five Liberian children between one and five years old had died of measles, two cases had been confirmed by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), and just over 100 suspected cases had been reported.
“In a context where there are large numbers of people living in congested spaces, and there’s a severe shortage of food, safe water, sanitation and health care, it is critical that we act quickly to stop this outbreak,” said Isabel Crowley, Liberia Representative for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“The fact that there are measles cases underlines that basic immunization rates are low, and that these communities may not have been fully reached and protected by health services. This is dangerous for these communities and beyond,” Crowley said.
Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that hits children hardest. Symptoms include high fever and rash, but among malnourished children it can cause serious complications including blindness, severe diarrhoea, and pneumonia. The disease can be prevented by immunization.
The vaccination campaign, led by Liberia’s health ministry with support from UNICEF and WHO, aims to reach all children between six months and 15 years old from both refugee and host communities.
It will also integrate Vitamin A supplementation, which can reduce deaths associated with measles by up to 50 per cent, as well as de-worming for children below five years old.
In addition, women of child-bearing age will be vaccinated against tetanus, and in selected communities with large refugee populations, the campaign will also include nutrition screening, counselling and referrals, according to UNICEF.
UN agencies have called for urgent funding, warning that refugees fleeing the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire – resulting from former president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to leave office despite his UN-certified defeat by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara – to Liberia could top 100,000 by the end of April.
In addition to the 30,000 refugees in Liberia, at least 20,000 other Ivorians have been internally displaced in western Côte d’Ivoire, where UN officials have warned that ethnic tensions stemming from national, racial and religious affiliation linked to the opposing camps could lead to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
Last month UN agencies and partners launched an $87.7 million appeal for aid in Côte d’Ivoire and five neighbouring countries to face a potential major humanitarian crisis.