GENEVA — U.N. and international aid agencies are stepping up a vaccination campaign in Syria and neighboring countries to contain measles outbreaks in the region. The U.N. Children's Fund says many Syrian children are at risk of killer diseases because they are not receiving routine immunizations.
The U.N. Children’s Fund reports hundreds of cases of measles have broken out among children in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey over the past year. In the case of Turkey, UNICEF says some 3,000 to 4,000 measles cases have been reported across the country, including 300 among Syrian refugees.
UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said so far, no child has died from measles, but that could change at any time.
“The assessment is that these outbreaks have been contained thus far in Syria and across the region. In large part, also because of an immunization campaign last year that reached 1.3 million children with measles vaccination and 1.5 million children with polio vaccination," said Mercado. "But the concern is very real. These are conditions that are conducive to the spread of disease and things are not getting any better for the Syrians either inside of the country or outside.”
The United Nations reports some four-and-one-quarter million people are displaced inside Syria and more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees have fled into neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. It says some 8,000 Syrians are fleeing the conflict in their country daily.
Mercado says nearly half of the displaced are children. She says large population movements and the breakdown of regular health services are making children susceptible to killer diseases like measles no matter where they are.
She says living conditions for displaced children in Syria are dreadful.
“The vast majority of whom are now living in camped, overcrowded, unsanitary conditions where diseases can rapidly spread," said Mercado. "The routine immunization system has been hit hard. The comprehensive numbers on routine immunization coverage are unavailable because reporting has broken down. The last routine vaccination reporting available is from January and February this year from just six out of 14 governorates in Syria. The figures there show coverage to be around 60 percent compared with coverage of around 95 percent across the country prior to the crisis.”
Mercado says it is extremely difficult to run a mass measles campaign in a region already struggling to provide humanitarian assistance to millions of people affected by the Syrian crisis. She says UNICEF is working with the health ministries, the World Health Organization and other partners to protect children against disease.
In Syria, she says health ministry teams, with the support of UNICEF and WHO, recently vaccinated some 550,000 children as part of a national campaign targeting 2.5 million children. She says access to some areas is not possible because of insecurity. For example, she notes that in Homs earlier this month, a mobile health team was shot at seven times, injuring three doctors.
Despite such setbacks, she says health workers are continuing their campaign to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of Syrian children against measles throughout the region.