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Amid roar of guns, UN-backed health campaign reaches 600,000 women and children in Somali capital

10 February 2010 – Despite fighting that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Mogadishu, health workers have fanned out across the war-torn capital of Somalia in a three-month United Nations-backed campaign that has immunized nearly 300,000 women of child-bearing age and 288,000 children.

The children were vaccinated against polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus and provided with vitamin A supplements, de-worming tablets and nutritional screening, while the women were immunized against tetanus in the Child Health Days campaign, supported by the UN Children''s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN World Health Organization (WHO) as part of a nationwide effort to provide life-saving health and nutrition services to every Somali child under the age of five and every woman of child-bearing age.

“Planning the Child Health Days in Mogadishu was not easy, given the volatile nature of the environment, where security conditions are changing by the day,” UNICEF Health Specialist Imran Raza Mirza said. “Our implementation plans were disrupted, on occasion, by serious fighting.”

But flexibility and good preparation made it possible to reach children and women in the capital. All vaccines and some 3,600 other supplies used in the campaign were pre-positioned, and health workers were on standby to fan out whenever the security situation allowed.

The presence of UNICEF and WHO staff on the ground also facilitated planning and implementation of the campaign in close cooperation with the local authorities and other partners. Over the three months, all of the districts in Mogadishu were covered in a phased approach.

“It is certainly a major accomplishment for all of us who took part,” Dr. Mirza said, adding that heavy fighting continues in the capital almost every day. “Yet it was possible to deliver this massive undertaking, which required mobilizing a large number of health workers and involved delivering and distributing a huge volume of supplies.”

One in every 10 children in Somalia dies before turning one, while one child in five dies before the age of five. Despite the challenge of delivering aid in the country's central and southern regions, especially in Mogadishu, the determination and commitment of local communities made the ambitious Child Health Days initiative possible, against all odds.

Outreach efforts such as this are especially important for children and families in Mogadishu, where they face harsh living conditions and lack even basic services, a situation compounded by ongoing conflict and limited humanitarian access in a country that has had no functioning central government since 1991.

“We don't have health facilities, nor water and shelter,” said Halima Elmi, a mother of eight who brought her children to a health post set up for the campaign. She now lives in a displacement camp where no hospitals or clinics are available.

“I came today to see health workers who have the vaccines. This is what the people here need,” she said.

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