Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Polio vaccines to be offered throughout displaced persons camps in Pakistan

From Reuters:

MARDAN, Pakistan - The presence of thousands of children from Swat and other northern areas in Pakistan's camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) offers an unexpected opportunity for anti-polio teams to vaccinate those who could not previously be accessed, say specialists.

"This is a great opportunity to immunise these children who are coming from areas we haven't been able to access before. In fact we have set up transit points to catch children on the move," Melissa Corkum, programme communication specialist polio/EPI (Expanded Programme on Immunisation) for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN.

Tens of thousands of children were not vaccinated because militants in the affected areas had opposed the vaccination campaigns. This is thought to have contributed to the 117 polio cases reported in 2008, a sharp increase on the 32 reported in 2007. So far in 2009 12 new cases have been reported, compared to seven by the same date in 2008, according to data maintained by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Ershad Karim, chief field officer for UNICEF in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), told IRIN: "We have begun vaccination campaigns and are working with relevant government departments. In seven camps we have vaccinated 15,000 children against polio and 9,389 against measles."

UNICEF said it was providing safe water and sanitation facilities in four newly established camps to more than 22,000 people to prevent the spread of diseases among children. Facilities provided include latrines, water tanks and deep boreholes for safe drinking water.

However, the needs of the rapidly expanding number of IDPs are immense, and families remain worried. "Our children are falling sick with diarrhoea because of the heat. There are just no facilities here," said Muhammad Qasim, from Buner, at the Jalala camp in Mardan (a district in NWFP). He complained all three of his children were ill and had temperatures.

The precise number of displaced children is unknown, but UNICEF's Ershad Karim said: "About 40 percent of those who have left home are children."

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on 22 May that the number of IDPs formally registered by local authorities since 2 May, following fighting in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat districts of NWFP, was over 1.7 million. About 200,000 of these are in camps and the rest are staying with family and friends or in schools and other communal buildings, UNHCR said.

Corkum said the IDP camps would also be included in future vaccination campaigns. "Emergency outreach immunisation sessions are planned - to cover children accommodated in schools, government or private premises," she said. "Special training had been given to teams to vaccinate and register all children based with host families."

Of the 26 camps in northwestern Pakistan 15 were set up in the past month, many with help from UNHCR.