Measles outbreak calls for quick action to vaccinate children in war-torn Mali

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Measles and polio are deadly diseases that have been long forgotten in Europe. In Mali, however, reality is quite different. The recent armed conflict  in the north of the country has not only forced thousands of people to flee their homes, but has also caused outbreaks of infections such as measles or cholera among children.

In an attempt to alleviate the effects of the war on the most vulnerable, health workers from a coalition of NGOs have recently carried out a 10-day campaign to vaccinate thousands of children.

‘This campaign was a response to the ongoing outbreak of measles cases in essentially 2 northern regions, Gao and Kidal and in Gao region we have been able to vaccinate more than 52000 children under the age of 14 but because of security constraints, we were only able to limit ourselves to the main population agglomeration areas in the north, but we could not cover the entire population’, says Health Manager at Unicef-Mali Dr. George Ameh.

But fighting between the EU backed Malian government and the islamist rebels from the north has deeply disrupted the delivery of vaccines to children.

Incessant combat has worsened the access of health workers to areas under Tuareg control, where outreach services had to be suspended amid security concerns. Skilled manpower were forced to abandon the area and health centers, transport facilities and refrigeration systems have been destroyed in the northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.

‘The country’s infrastructure, particularly refrigerations systems that keep vaccines cool, was never in good condition, even prior to the conflict. But the worsening of recent developments in the north of the country has completely destroyed that infrastructure’, says Gustavo Domato from Red Cross

‘In Timbuktu, as much as 50% of health workers left the zone and up to 40% of the health facilities were affected’, Dr. Ameh says.

Among the most vulnerable, experts say there are more than 400.000 internally and externally displaced people. Escaping from constant battling and poor living conditions, thousands of Malians have had no choice but to move to relatives houses in the south or to refugee camps in neighboring Niger and Burkina Fasso. Half of the refugees are children.

The crisis in the sub-saharian country, one of the poorest in the world, has also increased the price of vaccination by 50%. Before the conflict erupted in July last year, administering a vaccine would cost less than one dollar per child.

‘If fridges are destroyed, you  have to make extra efforts to conserve your vaccines, you have to rent vehicles and motorcycles from the private sector. Even work together with private homes to conserve vaccines, buy ice, these are costs that we did not encounter prior to the conflict’, Dr. Ameh says.

The 10-day operation carried out by Unicef and other NGOs came ahead of the World Immunization Week, an initiative from World Health Organisation. This global campaign hopes to highlight the positive impact of vaccination on the wellbeing of a country’s population.

Preventing more than 3 million deaths a year, vaccination is one of the most cost-effective health tools available .

‘Vaccines involve thinking long-term. In Mali, for instance, if we do not continue vaccinating children, we are endangering the future of the country’, says Gustavo.

After sending 4000 soldiers to help the government in Bamako combat the rebel insurgency in the north, France recently began to withdraw its first batch of troops from the West African nation. But with the French departure, those whose lives have been deeply affected by the war risk being forgotten as media attention slowly shifts elsewhere.

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