Some 1.6 million children throughout Guinea are receiving vaccinations, nutritional supplements and mosquito nets in a bid by UNICEF and the Health Ministry to shore up children’s health, which experts say has been hit hard by unrest in recent years.
After some progress in the late 1990s and early 2000s child health in Guinea has deteriorated in recent years, due in part to the socio-economic and political turmoil, according to UNICEF Guinea representative Julien Harneis.
“In Guinea there had been some gains over the years,” he said. The country saw a drop in under-five mortality between 1990 and 2008 – from 231 children per 1,000 live births to 146. UNICEF says this was in large part due to improving critical health interventions coverage such as immunization over the period. “But with the socio-economic and political problems since 2006 we have seen stagnation. And this year even regression.”
He said primary school enrolment is dropping and diseases that kill children are re-emerging.
Thus far in 2009 Guinea has 103 confirmed measles cases, compared to zero in 2008. And Guinea is among West African countries hit by a resurgence of polio, with 32 cases in 2009.
In the 20-26 November campaign Guinea’s estimated 1.6 million under-five children will receive measles vaccinations, vitamin A supplements, anti-parasite medication and treated mosquito nets. Women who are pregnant or recently gave birth will also receive vitamin A, according to UNICEF.
The campaign – carried out with the World Health Organization and a number of local and international NGOs – is among several actions aimed at re-establishing progress in child health and survival, UNICEF's Harneis told IRIN.
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Mohamed Lamine Yansané, Health and Public Hygiene Ministry’s chief of staff, told IRIN: “Anytime a country goes through a precarious political or socio-economic situation the first to suffer are the children. So the Health Ministry is pleased that, after these painful events [surrounding the military crackdown of 28 September], the first major campaign we are launching is for children.”
He added: “Since the campaign began on 20 November we have seen a huge mobilization of people – both coming out to work on the campaign and to have their children vaccinated.”
Health workers, elected officials and volunteers are gathering at health centres, schools, churches, mosques and marketplaces across Guinea for the special “integrated” campaign to block the spread of measles as well as protect children from malaria and other common child killers, according to UNICEF.
But the one-off campaign approach points to limitations in the public health system, UNICEF’s Harneis said.
“Campaigns like this are used increasingly by UNICEF and other agencies in contexts where the routine approach – i.e. vaccinations as part of routine health services – has weaknesses,” he said. “A mass campaign like this should not be necessary, but in Guinea basic social services are under pressure.”
Harneis said it is currently difficult for UNICEF and other agencies to find the funds even for these activities. Following the December coup d'état that put Moussa Dadis Camara in power many donors reduced or suspended development assistance, including some for the health sector.
“This kind of activity – to shore up basic social services – is not seen as humanitarian. You have an ongoing crisis and we’re seeing an impact on children. It is difficult to secure the funding to respond to that.”
UNICEF and the World Health Organization recently turned to the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund for urgent funding to help the public health sector cope with fallout of the recent violence and prepare for potential future crises.