Iraq: raising awareness on the importance of vaccination

It’s mid-morning, in the Baherka camp for internally displaced people in Iraq, and Bushra is preparing lunch for her family. Sitting in her lap is her 8-month-old daughter Hajir, a bright-eyed cherub, who’s stuffing food into, and around, her mouth when she thinks her mother isn’t looking.

Bushra and her sister-in-law Shaha are making kuba – spice- and meat-filled dumplings. With the ease born of long practice, they expertly flatten the dough into perfect circles, fill them with meat and pinch them closed into neat crescents.

Between them, the two women have nine children. They’ve been in the camp, a former concrete factory on the outskirts of Erbil, for nine months. Violence forced them out of their homes in Mosul. But Bushra’s husband stayed behind to protect their home.

Bushra with her youngest child Hajir.
Bushra with her youngest child Hajir. (c) Photo credit: UNICEF Iraq/2015/Niles

“We have relatives back in Mosul,” she says. “But we have no way of contacting them. We don’t know how they are.”

Despite the uncertainty in their lives, the women are cheerful, and joke and chat as they assemble the family meal. It looks delicious.

This morning, the women have visitors. A team of mobilizers is going around the camp, home to about 3,000 people, talking to families about getting their children vaccinated.

Bushra and Shaha have heard a rumour in the camp that a child was left paralysed after having been vaccinated – and it’s misconceptions like these that the team want to lay to rest.

Scenes like this one are being played out all over the Kurdish region of Iraq this week, which is hosting more than 220,000 Syrian refugees and about 830,000 people displaced by conflict within the country.

The World Health Organization estimates that globally 1.5 million children die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases. Routine immunization is one of the most promising public health interventions available, but some populations, especially those from areas of conflict, remain underserved. World Immunization Week (24–30 April) is trying to close that gap.

The polio immunization campaign in northern Iraq, with generous funding from Rotary International, is a success story. UNICEF has a mandate for communication support in polio eradication, and with Rotary funding has sent 50 social mobilization teams throughout the region to high-risk areas in order to improve awareness of the polio campaign and routine immunization. Over the three-day campaign, each team aims to visit 30–40 families to impress upon them the importance of getting their children fully vaccinated.

Refugees and internally displaced people who live in camps can receive vaccinations at any time at the camps’ health centres. One challenge is to ensure that children receive follow-up vaccinations after their initial visit. So the social mobilizers have charts with a timetable that explains the immunization schedule.

Bushra understands that vaccines are not harmful to children, and that living in a camp setting makes them especially important, while also providing easier access to these health services. Hajir and all the other children have received their shots, as well as polio drops.

As she’s talking, Hajir scrambles off her mother’s lap and, for no apparent reason, bursts into tears. Her mother scoops her youngest child back into her arms to comfort her.

“We heard the rumours about vaccines, but we didn’t believe them,” she says. “I still got my children vaccinated.”

Chris Niles is an Emergency Communication Specialist in Iraq.

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