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Iraq: Millions Of Children Receiving Immunizations

Some 3.5 million Iraqi children were vaccinated this week in a campaign organized by Iraq's Health Ministry, the United Nations Children's Fund, and the World Health Organization.

Prague, 24 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of medical personnel have been working in Iraq for the last three days to vaccinate children against the most common preventable diseases.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has supplied 25 million doses of vaccines to Iraq to help prevent the spread of polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, and tuberculosis -- considered the main killers of children in developing countries.

This week's campaign was the third of its kind in Iraq and will be followed by three more through the end of the year. There are some 4.2 million children in Iraq under the age of five, but officials say it is impossible to reach every one of them during each vaccination round.

UNICEF spokesman Gordon Weiss says authorities are aiming at complete coverage due to the several stages of repeated immunizations. Children left out of one campaign are picked up in the next wave of vaccinations. Some vaccines also require more than one dose per child.

"Iraq is in a particularly delicate stage at the moment -- postwar, with a lot of the health system having broken down and a lot of the water systems having broken down, as well. So children are more than ever this year vulnerable to water-borne diseases. Usually you don't vaccinate just once, you vaccinate a number of times in order to have the vaccinations work," Weiss says.

Iraq's health-care system suffered during a decade of UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime. The U.S.-led war in Iraq earlier this year, and the widespread looting that followed, also seriously damaged the country's health infrastructure.

International health officials say that for several months, Iraq's Health Ministry practically stopped functioning, that communication between the capital and the provinces became impossible, and that vital services such as routine immunizations ended. Iraq's store of vaccines was also affected.

International humanitarian organizations have been conducting operations such as the immunization program in Iraq despite the difficulties, including recent bombings directed specifically at the UN presence.

"UNICEF has been working in Iraq since 1983. And vaccination has always been a large part of our program there," says Weiss. "We are carrying out the vaccinations in difficult circumstances. The United Nations operation has been an awkward one since the bombing on the 19th of August, in which United Nations staff members were killed. So things are very tense. The security situation is difficult in Iraq."

But Weiss says his colleagues are used to such hardship and that he is sure the immunization operation in Iraq will be successful.

The UNICEF team in Iraq has three major tasks. They train local vaccinators and health officials, supply millions of doses of vaccines, and support the so-called "cold chain." The cold chain is a system of cold supply storage boxes and refrigerators for vaccines that begins in the central vaccine storehouse in Baghdad and travels down to the regional and village community levels.

"And that also means that we have to make sure that those [refrigerators] can operate even if there is no electricity. So we often supply generators and things to make sure that vaccines are kept in conditions in which they will be preserved and will work," Weiss says.

Despite security problems and communication difficulties, Weiss says Iraqis are participating in the immunization projects with enthusiasm. He says humanitarian organizations advertise in the local media, contact schools, and medical centers and even religious leaders to spread information about the upcoming vaccinations.

"We rely on parents bringing their children to be vaccinated. Iraqis are a very sophisticated population, a very well-educated population. And they know perfectly well the value of vaccinations. So there is no reluctance of parents to bring their children to be vaccinated. So the reaction is a very good one," Weiss says.

Vaccines are administered free of charge. International health officials estimate the cost of each round of child immunization in Iraq at around $3.5 million.