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Relief agencies prepare for measles campaign in South Sudan

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Nov 25, 2005 (NAIROBI) — Relief agencies are preparing for a comprehensive measles campaign across southern Sudan - the largest public health campaign in the region ever - to reduce the deadly impact of the disease among young children, officials said.

"We are launching the measles campaign, probably on Monday, in Juba [the capital of southern Sudan]," Ben Parker, communication officer for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said from Terakeka, a town north of Juba, on Thursday.

The campaign, targeting children between 6 months and 14 years, aims to vaccinate approximately 4.5 million children, or 47 percent of the total population of south Sudan, by the end of 2006.

"Of all the child deaths that could be prevented by vaccines, measles is the number one cause in south Sudan," Parker noted.

In August, UNICEF reported that up to 80 percent of childhood deaths attributed to vaccine-preventable diseases in southern Sudan were associated with measles.

"Over a 100,000 under-fives are estimated to die in southern Sudan per year, mostly from preventable diseases," Parker added. "We don’t know exactly how many people died of measles, but clearly, this campaign will save the lives of thousands of children."

Martin Opoka, southern Sudan early-warning coordinator for the World Health Organization (WHO), said 21 measles outbreaks had been recorded in the region in 2004. The town of Yambio, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, had witnessed one of the worst outbreaks in which over 500 children were hospitalised.

The Mass Measles Immunization Campaign, costing approximately US $12 million is organised by UNICEF, WHO and the southern Sudanese Ministry of Health, in cooperation with a dozen local and international NGOs.

The campaign will start in Equatoria region and move to Bahr al Ghazal and Greater Upper Nile over the course of 2006. It aims for 95 percent coverage of the target age group.

Immunisation coverage of 90 percent or more was needed to avoid the continuation of measles outbreaks across the region, Brigitte Toure, UNICEF health coordinator for southern Sudan, said.

According to UNICEF, routine immunisation data in southern Sudan showed that measles coverage for children under the age of five stood at 7 percent in 2001, 11 percent in 2002, 16 percent in 2003 and was currently about 20 percent.

"For the first time, it is possible to organise the vaccination campaign as a single effort. Previously, [government-controlled] garrison towns had to be done separately. The peace agreement, the new government of southern Sudan and the relative calm in the region have made this possible," Parker noted.

Due to difficulties of operating in a region that is emerging from a 21-year civil war, the campaign, which was scheduled to start on 21 November in Yambio, had to be postponed and shifted to Juba and surrounding areas due to a recent outbreak of fighting in the Yambio area.

Even with peace returning to the south, the vaccination teams encountered numerous challenges. "The hospital in Terakeka where we are installing the fridges [for the polio vaccines] has almost nothing. The one doctor who was present recently left for Khartoum. Now the hospital has no doctor," Parker explained.

An additional aim of the measles campaign, and the previous polio campaigns, was to build up the local capacity and infrastructure - through training and the supply of materials - for ongoing routine immunisations for a number of preventable diseases, he added.

Parker said vaccination teams were preparing ice packs and cold boxes in order to transfer the vaccines to the villages under the right conditions. The smaller cold boxes could be carried by people on bicycles or on foot, to reach people in remote locations, including islands in the Nile river and isolated cattle camps.

"It is exciting to see what can be achieved when there is peace on the ground," Parker observed. "It shows people that something positive is happening."

(IRIN)

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