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UNICEF Begins Life-Saving Immunization Campaign in Somalia

The United Nations Children's Fund says it is beginning a week-long mass immunization campaign in war-torn Somalia on Sunday. UNICEF says volunteer health workers aim to immunize 100,000 children and women in camps for internally displaced people in southern Somalia. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

During the coming week, tens of thousands of children and women living in over 80 camps along the Mogadishu-Afgoye corridor, will receive a package of critical life saving interventions.

The U.N. Children's Fund says children under age five will receive measles, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and tuberculosis vaccines. In addition, they will receive vitamin A, which helps boost their immunity against illness.

UNICEF says the weeklong campaign also targets women of reproductive age. About 56,000 will receive iron supplementation and tetanus toxoid immunization.

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis, who fled fighting in Mogadishu, have gone to the Afgoye region, about 30 kilometers south of the capital.

In an interview from Mogadishu, UNICEF Communication Officer, Misbah Sheikh, told VOA conditions under which the displaced people are living are appalling.

"Many of the camps are overcrowded. There is a lot of potential for diseases and especially waterborne diseases. And in fact, in the past Somalia has seen outbreaks of cholera and, I believe, thousands of people have died," said Sheikh.

UNICEF says Somalia is one of the worst places on earth for children. It says one in eight children dies before age five, one in three is chronically malnourished, 30 percent of children go to school and life expectancy is 47 years on average.

Sheikh says 16 years of conflict have destroyed Somalia's health system. She says there are not enough trained doctors and nurses to provide essential services for the population.

She says recent data show targeted immunization campaigns, such as the one going on now, do make a difference in reducing the number of children who die each year from measles and polio.

"So, it is very important that people understand that in spite of whatever appears on the media on a daily basis, you know, the blood-letting and what not, there are wonderful things going on," said Sheikh. "There are latrines being constructed. There is water reaching people who need it. Children who are malnourished are getting treated, which is not to say we are reaching every child. There are lots of challenges and tremendous gaps."

Sheikh says this immunization campaign along the Afgoye Road is one of three that UNICEF and its partners will organize in the coming weeks. She says these campaigns have proven to be very cost effective.

She says UNICEF and the World Health Organization believe they can reach 3.5 million children and women in the next two years for as little as $15 per person per year.