Almost two thirds of children who have not been immunized with basic vaccines live in countries that are either partially or entirely affected by conflict, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today, ahead of World Immunization Week.
Of countries in conflict, South Sudan has the highest percentage of unimmunized children, with 61 per cent not receiving the most basic childhood vaccines, followed by Somalia (58 per cent) and Syria (57 per cent), UNICEF said in a press release.
“Conflict creates an ideal environment for disease outbreaks,” said UNICEF Chief of Immunization Robin Nandy. “Children miss out on basic immunizations because of the breakdown – and sometimes deliberate destruction – of vital health services. Even when medical services are available, insecurity in the area often prevents them from reaching children.”
The major causes of childhood illness and death include measles, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and malnutrition, which can worsen in conflict and emergencies, according to UNICEF.
When children contract measles in non-conflict settings, less than one per cent of them die. In areas where crowding and malnutrition are rife, such as refugee camps, child deaths from measles can increase to up to 30 per cent of cases. Overcrowding and lack of basic necessities like food, water and shelter make children even more vulnerable to disease, the agency noted.
Children in areas in conflict also see the killing of health workers and the destruction of medical facilities, supplies and equipment, all of which have a disastrous effect on their health.
Conflict-affected areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan are the last remaining strongholds of poliovirus, which has otherwise been eliminated from the rest of the world, UNICEF said.
In Syria, immunization levels have decreased from more than 80 per cent in 2010, prior to the conflict, to 43 per cent in 2014. Polio resurfaced in the country in 2013, after 14 years with no cases.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 2,000 suspected cases of measles have already been reported in 2016, with 17 deaths, most of them among children under five years old.
UNICEF said vaccination – particularly against highly contagious measles – is a high priority in humanitarian emergencies and is a central part of its response to protect children’s health in such settings.
In Syria, a vaccination campaign planned to start on Sunday will target young children who have missed out on routine vaccination, especially those in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. Many of these children, born since the conflict began, have never been vaccinated, UNICEF said.
The agency said that during 2014-2015, it supported emergency immunization campaigns against measles for more than 23 million children in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
In emergencies and conflicts, UNICEF works with partners to restart the cold chain for vaccines and other essential medical supplies; put health teams back in place; and train health workers to provide immunization, nutrition screening, vitamin A supplements and medical treatment for women and children.
Immunization in conflict helps to revive other badly needed health services. For example, in conflict-affected areas of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, health workers also offer health and nutrition services, as well as care for childhood illnesses, to populations that come forward in response to immunization campaigns.
“Children affected by conflict are pushed into a downward spiral of deprivation that robs them of their health and, by extension, their futures. Vaccination can help to break this vicious cycle,” said Mr. Nandy. “Immunization is a vital service that deserves and requires protection from all parties to a conflict.”
World Immunization Week is marked annually at the end of April to promote the use of life-saving vaccines for all children – particularly those who are consistently excluded. The event is observed by UNICEF, immunization partners, governments and civil society organizations around the world. World Immunization Week 2016 runs from 24 to 30 April.