Increasingly worried about the possible spread of polio amid Iraq’s escalating chaos, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday that they had begun a mass vaccination in what amounts to a test case of whether Islamist extremists will allow such an effort in areas they control.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge,” Juliette Touma, a UNICEF spokeswoman, said by telephone after completing a 10-day visit to Iraq. “This is extremely timely because of the mass movement of the population, the poor living conditions,” she said.
While health teams can administer the polio vaccine to dislocated children in areas under government control, it is unclear whether fighters of the Islamic State would countenance a vaccination campaign in areas they have seized, given their antipathy to other government authorities and international organizations. Both UNICEF and the WHO are part of the United Nations, which has designated the Islamic State as a terrorist group.
“I don’t know how successful it’s going to be,” Touma said of the effort, which began Sunday and aims to reach 4 million Iraqi children under the age of 5.
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She also said the vaccination effort could not cover children among the tens of thousands of Yazidis, a minority that has been marooned on Mount Sinjar, corralled by Islamic State fighters in Iraq who have threatened to kill them as apostates.
“It’s impossible for us to reach them with a campaign,” she said.
There has been no contact, Touma said, between international health officials and the militants of the Islamic State, who seized Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, two months ago and have marauded east toward the city of Irbil in recent days, seizing more land and uprooting more people. Last week, President Obama ordered U.S. airstrikes to blunt the Islamic State advance, the first U.S. combat action in Iraq since the last U.S. soldier left the country in 2011.
In a joint announcement Monday, UNICEF and the WHO said they had undertaken a four-day campaign in collaboration with Iraq’s Health Ministry. The announcement said that both international agencies were assisting Iraqi health authorities, including in areas of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq where approximately 250,000 Iraqi children and 125,000 Syrian children have taken refuge.
“This campaign comes at a critical time while the country is witnessing a huge internal exodus of children fleeing violence and turmoil,” said Marzio Babille, UNICEF’s Iraq representative.
Polio, a crippling scourge that primarily afflicts young children, was once thought to have been on the verge of eradication, but it was discovered in October in Syria, and it spread to Iraq in March. One of the two Iraqi children found to have polio was confirmed to have been paralyzed by the disease in April. Because polio is highly contagious, the presumption is that hundreds of other Iraqi children have been exposed.
In both Iraq and Syria, the re-emergence of polio followed a 14-year absence of any such cases and is considered a consequence of the collapse of Syria’s public health system during the civil war that began in March 2011. Despite multiple vaccination campaigns in both countries during the past few months, many children in combat zones and hard-to-reach areas have not been vaccinated. Multiple rounds of vaccine are required to combat the polio virus.
The last big Iraq vaccination effort in May, which covered all 19 governorates, or provinces, was only partly successful. Touma said vaccination coverage was lowest in Anbar in the west, and Ninevah and Kirkuk in the north, because of violence and mass population movements. Coverage was also low in Muthanna, in the south, because of what Touma called “social reservations and lack of awareness among the local communities.”