Iraq: Routine child immunization re-established
210,000 newborns in last 90 days, all vulnerable to preventable diseases
BAGHDAD – With support from UNICEF, the Iraqi Ministry of Health has begun the process of immunizing the country’s 4.2 million children under the age of five against preventable diseases such as polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, measles and tuberculosis. The World Health Organization is also contributing to the reactivation of the Iraq’s Expanded Programme of Immunization by re-establishing the country’s vital disease surveillance system.
According to UNICEF, no child in Iraq has been routinely immunized since the start of military action on 20 March 2003.
“In the past three months, approximately 210,000 children have been born in Iraq,” said Carel de Rooy, UNICEF’s Representative in Iraq. “Not one of these children has been vaccinated against the myriad of deadly and debilitating diseases young children are susceptible to.”
“Parents know how important these immunizations are to their newborn and young children. An infant’s immune system is very fragile and vulnerable to contracting disease without these vaccines, and given the current conditions in the country, children are at greater risk than ever if they are not vaccinated right away,” added de Rooy.
With the fall of the former regime came the breakdown of much of Iraq’s health system. The Ministry of Health stopped functioning, communication between the capital and the governorates became impossible and vital services like routine immunization collapsed leaving children vulnerable to disease.
The war also affected the country’s store of vaccines. The country’s vaccines were kept in a building at the Vaccine and Serum Institute of Baghdad. The institute was struck by missiles during the war and all electricity to the store room was cut.
“When the electricity went down, the cold chain system for preserving vaccines was rendered useless,” said de Rooy. “More damage was caused when looters tore apart wiring, compressors and circuit boards at the institute making immediate emergency repairs to the cold chain impossible. In the end, all vaccine stocks were spoiled and had to be destroyed,” he added.
To overcome this situation, UNICEF has been bringing millions of doses of vaccines into Iraq to restart the country’s routine immunization programme in partnership with the reactivated Ministry of Health. The 25 million doses of vaccines were purchased through a $3.2 million grant from USAID.
UNICEF has also been working with health officials to repair Iraq’s cold chain system so that the vaccines that are brought in can be properly stored. The $1.85 million rehabilitation project was covered by funds from DFID (United Kingdom).
“UNICEF and the Ministry of Health have been focusing our health initiatives on re-establishing the country’s routine immunization system. It is our main priority for protecting the health of Iraqi children,” said de Rooy. “The size and importance of this endeavour can not be underestimated, and we are extremely pleased that immunization will begin across Iraq today.”
With support from UNICEF and WHO, Iraq has been certified polio-free, measles has been brought under control, and maternal and neonatal tetanus eliminated.
However, according to UNICEF all of these gains would be lost if routine immunization were not restarted quickly. The re-emergence of polio in Iraq would also risk transmission to neighbouring countries, thereby threatening the region.