Iraq launches campaign to stay polio-free

Campaign aims to maintain Iraq's record, which has been polio-free for one year

The UN’s health and children’s agencies have launched a campaign in Iraq to keep nearly 6 million children free from polio, amid a grave security backdrop and massive population displacement.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF’s 12-month push to immunise 5.8 million children in Iraq will run four campaigns this year – each one administering a dose of the vaccine to every child – in a bid to keep the crippling disease at bay. The first campaign started on 24 May.

Iraq has been polio-free for one year. The Middle Eastern country last recorded a polio case in April 2014, after an outbreak of the disease swept across Syria’s borders to neighbouring countries in 2013.

Before the regional outbreak, Iraq had had no cases of the disease for more than a decade.

“Having gone one year with no polio case, this is monumental in terms of stopping the outbreak,” said Jeffrey Bates, communications and strategic partnerships chief for UNICEF Iraq.

Humanitarian access will be the biggest challenge to the campaign. Beset by conflict, such as in the fighting in Iraq’s western Anbar province and its capital Ramadi, vaccination teams will have to wait until it is safe to enter certain areas. The security threat comes from the volatile security situation and not any particular armed group, according to Bates.

Polio workers in Iraq have not come under attack for their efforts, as healthworkers in other countries such as Somalia and Pakistan have done. “[In conflict areas] we’ll cordon that area off and reach into it once the security situation improves,” he said.

The movement of people on a grand scale also makes it difficult for teams to reach 100 per cent of children targeted, as not all displaced populations will travel on the main roads where the agencies plan to set up transit points. Last year’s polio campaign reached 90 per cent of children in Iraq, according to the children’s agency.

Some 1.5 million people have been internally displaced in Iraq according to estimates by the UN’ refugee agency. 

The country’s chances of stability were rocked in 2013 when heavy fighting broke out between government forces and armed opposition groups. Civil unrest engulfs around one-third of the country.

“Usually places where the social systems have broken down are more susceptible [to polio] because children are not getting immunised. The national campaigns are really a supplement, a proxy, for what should be in place in terms of routine immunisation,” said Bates. “Once Iraq again achieves stability and the health structures are put back in place, then we won’t need these types of frequent, massive outreach campaigns.”

The nationwide campaign will target all 5.8 million children in Iraq under the age of five, including Syrian refugee children.

Still, funding remains a challenge. Iraq’s government has reported a $45m shortfall for seven polio campaigns in 2015 and 2016, or more than $6m per round of vaccination.

Only two cases of polio were confirmed in Iraq during the regional outbreak of the disease in early 2014. The incidences led WHO to put Iraq on the list of countries infected with wild poliovirus. The UN health agency removed Iraq from the list in May this year following mass immunisation drives to stymie the disease’s spread.

“Significant risks continue to exist and thus there is no room for complacency,” said Dr Syed Jaffar Hussain, WHO country representative to Iraq.

Photo credit: UNICEF Iraq/2015/KHUZAIE