Children fleeing conflict often miss out on basic immunizations. UNICEF-supported vaccine specialists are determined to reach every child with the vaccines they need to stay healthy, no matter what the circumstances.
For the past 11 years, immunization specialist Ibtisam Abdullah Altayeb has been protecting children in Sudan from vaccine-preventable diseases. When armed conflict broke out between Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Response Forces on April 15, 2023, her job got a lot more complicated.
Since April, the conflict has pushed an estimated 2.2 million people — including 1 million children — out of their homes in search of safety. Some are displaced inside Sudan, others have fled to neighboring countries.
Crowded living conditions leave displaced children particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks
An important part of protecting children from harm is making sure they are up to date on all their vaccinations. But for displaced mothers and caretakers unfamiliar with their new surroundings, finding health facility locations and figuring out which services are offered where can be a high hurdle.
So Ibtisam and her health worker colleagues are innovating to reach displaced children and those in host communities through a coordinated weekly approach combining clinic hours, home visits and outreach sessions. They are determined to reach every child with lifesaving vaccines, despite the challenging times. And nothing will stop them.
Home visits ensure every child receives lifesaving vaccines
On a Wednesday morning, Ibtisam arrives at her work station. According to the schedule, this day is designated for immunization outreach targeting displaced children. Her first stop: the Ishgaddi gathering point.
Children and families are arriving daily, taking refuge in places like Madani. Many are living in schools and institutions also known as gathering points, while some are hosted by relatives. The locations have been mapped out by the health workers for easy reach of eligible children, and Ibtisam and her team have created a schedule indicating who goes where and when.
“These days, we have many people arriving, first from Al Damazine and now from Khartoum. We don’t discriminate while offering our services. Every child has the right to vaccination,” she says.
Some families have their children's immunization records, others come empty-handed
Vaccines and other supplies are prepped for delivery and Ibtisam is ready to head out to the communities.
“Some families came with health cards containing all the immunization records of their child, which is always helpful," she says. "Others came empty-handed, and some have never been immunized.”
“We don’t say no to anyone. We work together on an immunization plan ... Today I am taking vaccines for measles, meningitis and yellow fever. There are several new mothers in the camp,” she asserts.
UNICEF and the Federal Ministry of Health are working together to maintain an uninterrupted supply chain of vaccines
On Sundays and Tuesdays, Ibtisam runs static vaccination clinics at the health facility; on Mondays she conducts outreach sessions for displaced communities in camps and shelters.
Given the significant increase in the number of arrivals, the health facility occasionally experiences reduced vaccine stocks. But UNICEF and the Federal Ministry of Health are addressing these challenges through maintenance of an uninterrupted supply chain of vaccines in 12 states, including Gezira state, where Madani is located.
Using the quickest means of transport to reach the children with vaccines safely tucked into a cooler box that keeps them safe and effective, Ibtisam heads out to the gathering point with several children under 5.
In no time, the mothers with their children congregate around her.
Outreach programs address vaccine hesitancy
For several years, Ibtisam has witnessed vaccine refusals resulting from myths shared by mothers and caregivers. Today her sessions begin with health education to demystify these myths and rumors. She shares detailed information on all the vaccines a child needs to stay healthy and when the vaccines should be administered, and ends with the overall importance of vaccination to protect kids from killer childhood illnesses.
“We try to educate the mothers, according to their level of understanding. Sometimes we use posters for visual illustration,” she says.
Mothers are her primary audiences because she believes they are key decision makers on childhood vaccinations in their households. “Sometimes fathers oppose immunization. So, we educate the mothers to convince their husbands on the importance of immunizing their children.”
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