Unicef and the World Health Organization yesterday began a four-day campaign to try to vaccinate 4 million children for polio in Iraq, a difficult task in a region ravaged by fighting.
More than 600,000 children have been displaced by conflict, as fighters from Islamic State, an insurgent al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq and Syria, battle the government and forces from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north.
“We want to reach every child regardless of where they are or under what control,” said Juliette Touma, a Unicef spokeswoman by phone from Amman, Jordan. The vaccine has already been distributed to several parts of Iraq.
The Iraqi vaccination push is part of the broader global polio response that was planned when a case was discovered in Syria last year after 15 years of absence, Touma said. Unicef is a global aid agency focused on children’s welfare.
Islamic militants have undermined vaccination in other countries. In Nigeria, one of three countries where polio remains endemic, the Islamic group Boko Haram is suspected in the abduction of health workers and the killing of nine others last year.
It’s too early to tell whether Islamic State will allow vaccinations by the aid agencies in cities it controls, Touma said. Unicef and WHO are coordinating closely with the Iraqi government and the regional Kurdistan government, Touma said.
In cities including Mosul, which the insurgent group controls, there are “still technical people on the ground” who may be able to administer the vaccine, Touma said. Unicef has not been in contact with Islamic militants, according to Touma.
“The situation is very fluid,” Touma said. “It comes at a very critical time because beyond who controls which area, there are many internally displaced people.”
There have been two recent cases of polio in Iraq after 14 years without the disease, according to Unicef. The violence there has made vaccinating young children difficult, and the conditions caused by refugees fleeing conflict have made transmission of infectious diseases more likely and making vaccinations more urgent, Unicef said in a statement.
Polio is a highly infectious virus that can cause minor symptoms in about 1 in 4 of those infected. About 1 percent of those infected become paralyzed and may die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no cure but vaccines have controlled its spread in most countries.
The WHO declared polio a public health emergency of international concern in May and reaffirmed that determination on July 31. The virus, once considered largely contained, could spread rapidly in “polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile states,” the WHO said in the statement. There have been 135 cases of polio so far this year, according to the WHO.
Worldwide polio cases fell to a record low of 223 in 2012, then rose to 416 cases in 2013.