Kathmandu. - More than half a million children are being targeted in an emergency vaccination drive in Nepal - as fears grow of measles outbreaks in the informal camps that have sprung up since the earthquake on 25 April. The campaign was launched by the Nepalese Ministry of Health and Population, with support from UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO). In a major step to boost the health-care assistance to earthquake survivors who have been unreachable since last week’s disaster, the World Health Organization announced the establishment of a new field office in the Gorkha district of Nepal.
Lack of shelter and sanitation are huge risk factors for disease - as the number of people who have fled their homes continues to grow, with many people now living next to their damaged houses. According to figures available before the earthquake struck, around one in 10 children in Nepal is not vaccinated against measles.
"Measles is very contagious, and can potentially be deadly, and we fear it could spread very quickly in the often crowded conditions in the improvised camps where many children are living," said UNICEF’s Representative in Nepal, Tomoo Hozumi. "We have been working for decades to eliminate measles in Nepal. Unless we act now, there is a real risk of it re-emerging as a major threat for children – a setback for all of our collective efforts."
In the first wave of the emergency response, teams are working to immunise children under the age of five in informal settlements in the three densely populated districts in Kathmandu Valley – Bhaktapur, Kathmandu and Lalitpur. The drive will continue in the coming weeks in the 12 districts worst-hit by the earthquake.
"We are working with partners to take urgent practical steps to mobilise tens of thousands of vaccines, as well as the cold chain facilities needed to store them at the right temperature and keep them effective," says Tomoo Hozumi. "We are doing everything possible to minimise the danger for children who have already been through so much."
Around 1.7 million children remain in urgent need of humanitarian aid in the worst-hit areas of Nepal. In addition to providing vaccinations to cut the risk of disease, UNICEF is prioritising access to clean water and sanitation for children across the worst-affected areas of the country.
"Health care services are being delivered in built-up areas in Gorkha and those that still can be reached by road," said Hyo-Jeong Kim, WHO Emergency Operations Manager. "But we have also identified seven communities beyond the Himalayas in an area not easily accessible, and where there are about 6000 people who have not been reached with services since the earthquake struck. Below those villages, there are about 7000 additional people who have not been reached, she added."
It is critical, Kim said, that health workers and medical supplies reach these areas immediately. "It is essential that people are treated for injuries or infections that they may have, and then protected against diarrhoeal diseases, respiratory infections and other infections to name a few. Pregnant women must also be given rapid access to care for safe deliveries and to ensure that any complication of pregnancy or birth is rapidly addressed."
Nischal Kattel, an earthquake survivor in Katteldanda, where almost all of the 90 houses were leveled in the earthquake, says his community’s most important health needs relate to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.
Foto: © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-1109/Panday