I have been part of vaccination campaigns in some tough places, but nothing can prepare you for the devastation in Yemen. A brutal conflict that escalated in March is ravaging the country and I have come to support our team here.
It is early morning as we head out to a UNICEF-supported health centre in Sana’a. You can see the fear in people’s faces; the city experiences sporadic bombing and gunfire. But we are determined to get children vaccinated.
After we visit a health centre in which we find few children, we head to a camp for internally displaced persons. The former school houses some 40 families. Classrooms serve as dormitories. Children are playing around the school compound. For a moment, they forget the bombs and bullets that have forced them to flee.
Six days to reach four million children
The children of Yemen face the threat of not only conflict, but also malnutrition and disease. An interruption in vaccination services has put an estimated 2.6 million children under 15 years old at risk of contracting measles – a potentially fatal disease that spreads rapidly in times of conflict and population displacement. Polio, too, remains a threat.
A six-day immunization campaign is underway to reach these children. The initiative aims to vaccinate more than 4 million children under the age of 5 against polio, nationwide. Nearly 1.5 million children between 6 months and 15 years old are being targeted for measles vaccination, in selected priority districts.
Preventing preventable disease
We exit the car and step forward. The polio team quickly get to work. Children and their families pour in, queueing determinedly for their turn to be vaccinated.
One after the other, the children, some carried by their mothers, receive two drops of oral polio vaccine and vitamin A capsules. The air fills with the happy chuckling of the women. Their children are being protected against preventable killers.
As one mother says – if our children survive the bombs and bullets, they may not survive the diseases, if not vaccinated.
Our driver will be navigating carefully among rubble, along the way to the next site. Some areas of the city have been deserted, a stark reminder of the danger of bombs and bullets.
Mobilizing for children
Over these six days, more than 40,000 vaccinators and volunteers are spreading across the country, mobilizing communities, locating and vaccinating children.
We visit another vaccination site to get a sense of how this ambitious campaign is rolling out. Here, local supervisors patrol the streets in makeshift campaign vehicles mounted with loudspeakers, announcing the vaccination details.
I ask them why they need to announce the campaign in this way. The vaccinators are, after all, going door-to-door. It turns out that there is no electricity, and doorbells are not working. They are saving hundreds of hours by pre-advertising vaccination sites. Between the posters and the loudspeakers, they have everyone’s attention within a five-mile radius.
Their moment to help Yemen
I meet a group of vaccinators gathered over lunch. I learn that they have an updated list of households in the area, which has been shared with community influencers who will accompany the vaccinators to meet with families who have refused vaccination.
The vaccinators speak candidly about what motivates them, in this time of terrible insecurity. A common theme is that this is their moment to help Yemen, its people, their people. Their bravery is contagious. Somehow my earlier anxiety has dissipated some – my worry over the risk I have taken to come to Yemen and go out into a city where bombs and bullets are the new reality.
My departure is delayed because of a bombing, and then I am to return to Amman. I can only doff my hat in pure admiration at the level of commitment I have witnessed, from the UNICEF team to the vaccinators and to the parents, who are all working so hard under such trying circumstances to reach every child with the vaccines that are critical to their healthy start in life.
Dr. SM Moazzem Hossain is Regional Health Advisor, UNICEF Middle East and North Africa, based in Amman, Jordan. This blog post is based on a 6-day immunization campaign which took place in Yemen in August 2015.